As the world continues to modernize and globalize, people are using new technology in new ways to solve long-standing societal problems. For instance, technology many of us in the United States take for granted, such as laptops, is being used to provide healthcare to populations historically unable to access professional medical advice.
Bangladesh has half the doctors-per-person ratio recommended by the World Health Organization, with about one doctor per 2,000 people. In addition, while 70% of the population lives in rural areas, only 20% of doctors reside outside of cities. People living in the chars — low-lying islands of sand created by silt deposition and destroyed by erosion and flooding — face the least access to healthcare and often resort to unqualified village doctors, called kabirajs. Unfortunately, the lack of access to healthcare in the chars is also paired with a dire need; the over six million people living in these areas face health risks associated with their environments such as malnutrition, malaria and water-borne diseases such as chronic diarrhea.
However, over the past year, the intersection of technology and healthcare has been able to improve the lives of people in the chars and other remote locations in Bangladesh. A virtual medical service launched in October 2018, called Teledaktar (TD), allows people far from clinics and hospitals to communicate with doctors in cities via live streaming. Medical operators travel to the chars by boat, bringing a laptop, a portable printer for prescriptions and basic medical devices in order to take vitals such as blood pressure, heart rate, weight and height. They then locate the region in the char with the best internet reception and set up a tent with stools, tables, and a screens to protect the patients’ privacy.
Even though the organization has only existed for a year, it has already created a significant positive impact upon the populations it serves, creating an example that non-profit health organizations should follow around the world. TD has served 3,000 patients in 13 different regions across Bangladesh, including three chars. Of those patients, 200 have returned for follow-ups, showing increased trust toward doctors in rural populations that have previously been suspicious of traditional medicine and city doctors. According to Manjuara Khatun, a regular patient at the TD facility in the town of Tanore, this increased trust is due to the respect with which the virtual doctors treat their patients. He claims that “at the government hospitals, the doctors treat us very badly, but here they listen to us.”
In addition, TD’s services are particularly beneficial to women who are often intimidated by the long journey to city clinics and are uncomfortable discussing certain health issues, such as gynecological ailments, to male doctors. Dr. Tina Mustahid, the head doctor of TD, puts these women at ease and breaks down the stigma of discussing topics such as postpartum depression, aging and reproductive health.
Of course, telemedical services have several limitations and cannot entirely replace seeing a doctor in person. Virtual sessions provided by TD cannot treat serious illnesses or conditions requiring medical procedures, such as pregnancy or traumatic injuries. In addition, while virtual doctors can write prescriptions and diagnose common ailments such as fevers, skin diseases, joint pain and digestive problems, patients are often unable to afford the needed medicines. TD is linked to local pharmacies and offers discounts through these corporations. However, some patients are still unable to afford their treatments. According to Mira Begum, a patient living in Khidirpur char, purchasing the medicine “is killing us, it is becoming bigger than human life”. While the organization is working to obtain donations from pharmaceutical companies, the price of these medicines will remain a large barrier to improved healthcare until they are able to secure this funding. It is important for potential donators to recognize the potential of using telemedicine to reach remote areas and connect them to healthcare — a basic human right that is still unmet in large areas of the world.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.
Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.