'Virtual Doctors' Helping Patients in Zambia

Sean Coughlan | BBC | June 22, 2016

The idea of a "virtual doctor" project might sound rather futuristic.The idea of a "virtual doctor" project might sound rather futuristic.

But the inspiration for this scheme to improve health services in Zambia began in very low-tech and unhappy circumstances. Huw Jones, working in Zambia as a safari guide, was driving a Land Rover along a road in a remote part of the country. He saw a trail of blood in the road, and his first reaction was that it might have come from an animal killed by a lion. But he came across a couple on a bike - the man riding and the woman carried on the handlebars. She was pregnant and bleeding heavily and they had been cycling for hours with the aim of reaching the nearest hospital, almost 60 miles away.

The woman was in a great deal of pain and her husband seemed to be in a state of shock, says Mr Jones. Mr Jones stopped to pick them up and drive them. But the woman was already weak and died in the back of the Land Rover before they could reach anyone who could give them medical help. "It affected me quite deeply. I wondered if I could do anything," says Mr Jones. It was an awful example of the lack of medical provision for rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa - and, he says, he has come across too many deaths that could have been avoided with better care.

Zambia has about 1,600 doctors for a population of 14 million, and two-thirds of these are working in towns and cities, while most of the country's population is in the countryside. It means access to good quality health care is often difficult if not impossible. When Mr Jones returned to the UK, he began to develop a project to fill some of these gaps. He set up the Virtual Doctors charity, based in Brighton, which uses the expertise of volunteer doctors in the UK to provide direct and individual support for health workers in Zambia...