Guest Blog: “Telemedicine in Ghana”

This week on the blog we are hosting a guest post by Heather Baily, a Doctoral student in Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Here, she presents some of her research on telemedicine in Ghana.

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In November 2015, Tanja Ahlin and Mark Nichter issued a “Take a Stand” statement in the Critical Anthropology for Global Health interest group (available here), calling for more anthropologists to study telemedicine. Telemedicine is the use of telecommunication tools, namely cell phones and computers, to exchange information regarding patient health. A recent report from the World Health Organization (2016) states that universal health coverage cannot be achieved without this form of e-health. Universal health coverage, as well as comprehensive primary health care, has been an overarching goal of the international health and global health community since the Alma Ata conference in 1978, but these goals are very difficult to achieve. Telemedicine is poised to help achieve greater health coverage and access, yet the field is still very new, particularly in resource-poor settings, and is evolving rapidly alongside cell phone technology.

In June of last year, I traveled to Ghana to investigate the ways in which telemedicine is being used there. Ghana is in the midst of scaling up a successful telemedicine pilot project into a national telemedicine program through Ghana Health Services. Public health administrators in the pilot project districts, as well as doctors and nurses who worked with the program, all spoke favorably of the new technology. Each clinic and hospital has a designated smartphone to be used for various medical communication purposes, including receiving calls from patients, over-the-phone consultation from doctors at the regional hospital call center, and direct contact with the other clinics and district health offices through encrypted instant messaging apps, such as WhatsApp.

Practitioners reported decreased maternal mortality since the implementation of this program, as well as an increase in utilization of local clinics and trust in the staff. In Ghana, once someone has completed medical training of any kind, such as a community health nurse or a registered midwife, they must complete their “national service,” a two-year contract in an assigned village. Typically, community health nurses are younger and not from the village in which they are assigned to work. A “small girl/boy” is a common term used in Ghana for a young person, indicating not only their age, but their social status and lack of social legitimacy. Thus, being able to access and connect a patient to a doctor at a hospital over the phone has helped the nurses achieve more legitimacy and overcome their “small girl/boy” status.

I draw from several areas of anthropological theory when examining the impacts of telemedicine in Ghana, specifically the anthropology of reproduction since my dissertation research focuses on obstetric care. The concept of authoritative knowledge is particularly useful in this case. Authoritative knowledge is knowledge that is given more weight than other types of knowledge, or ways of knowing, by collective assessment in a local setting and is displayed in everyday practices (Jordan, 1990; Davis-Floyd & Sargent, 1997; Ivry, 2010). This concept relates to legitimacy in the health care setting as authoritative knowledge shapes interactions between patients and caregivers, access to knowledge, and health care decision-making. Access to physicians may alter the hierarchy of who has authoritative knowledge, adjust healthcare seeking patterns, or disrupt local power structures and “knowing” about birth.

Science and Technology Studies provides a foundation from which to examine the historical contexts and meanings of technologies and how people interact with them. The introduction of a communication technology which links rural areas to clinicians at a regional hospital complicates questions of the way people interact with technology, especially as it regards obstetric care.  Rayna Rapp (1999) examined technologies used in assisting reproduction, which she calls “technologies of knowing.” In this study, she examined the production of knowledge as a result of new technology. Following this tradition, it is important to examine the intersections of technology, reproduction, and knowledge by investigating ways in which the introduction of a new technology changes how a patient might acquire and use knowledge.

Studying telemedicine from an anthropological perspective builds on our understanding of how people interact with technology, particularly when seeking healthcare treatments, and how technology can influence a universal human experience, such as pregnancy and childbirth. As telemedicine is widely regarded as the much-needed direction medical care is heading around the world, it is crucial to examine ways it can shape an individual’s interaction with a technology and with the community at large.


About Heather:

Heather Baily is a dual degree Ph.D./MPH student in Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. She has a MA in Anthropology from CWRU and a BA in Anthropology and Sociology from Colorado State University. Her research investigates the intersections of new telecommunication technologies used in healthcare and local structures of reproductive knowledge and authority in Ghana.


References Cited:

Davis-Floyd, R., & Sargent, C. F. (1997). Childbirth and authoritative knowledge: Cross-cultural perspectives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ivry, T. (2010). Embodying culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Jordan, B. (1990). Technology and the social distribution of knowledge: Issues for primary health care in developing countries. In J. Coreil and J. D. Mull, (Eds.), Anthropology and Primary Health Care pp. 98–120).

Rapp, R. (1999). Testing women, testing the fetus: The social impact of amniocentesis in America. New York: Routledge.

World Health Organization. (2016). Global diffusion of eHealth: making universal health coverage achievable. Report of the third global survey on eHealth. Geneva.

 

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In the News: Health Disparities and Water Quality in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics

 

August 2016 – The 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has dominated news headlines in recent weeks. The athletics event, taking place from August 5 to August 21, featured 207 countries in the Parade of Nations as well as the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. It is the first time the games have been held in South America. But besides highlights on the events and spotlights on athletes’ training regimens and backgrounds, there is another stream of news stories surrounding the Olympic Games. These stories have focused on two key public health issues related to this year’s Games: health disparities and water quality issues.

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Rio’s Olympic beach volleyball venue is on Copacabana Beach. Photo from Marcio Jose Sanchez for AP.

Only two years ago the FIFA World Cup was making similar headlines in Brazil. As reported in 2014, and highlighted in this blog[1], there have been past concerns about access to quality healthcare despite the surge of funds for the World Cup event. These reports unmasked a problematic system of health disparities to a global audience. The Daily Californian[2] stated that many Brazilians were “unhappy that their government [was] funding stadium renovations instead of spending on more instrumental matters like improved health care and emergency services.” Reports relating to the current Olympics have painted a similar picture for the present health scene. As Reuters[3] reported in December 2015, the governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency “as hospitals, emergency rooms and health clinics cut services or closed units throughout the state as money ran out for equipment, supplies and salaries.” According to CNN[4], the financial crisis has been causing difficulties in the “provision of essential public services and can even cause a total breakdown in public security, health, education, mobility and environmental management.”. While the state of emergency declaration provides a critical 45 million reais ($25.3 million) in federal aid and may facilitate the transfer of future funds, estimates state that Rio de Janeiro owes approximately $355 million to employees and suppliers in the healthcare sector alone, and the state needs over $100 million to reopen the closed hospital units and clinics.[5] While the city of Rio spent approximately $7.1 billion on improving toll roads, ports and other infrastructure projects, the Brazil Ministry of Health devoted only $5.7 million to address health concerns[6].

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The Christ the Redeemer statue is visible above the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro. Photo from Joao Velozo for NPR. 

In addition to these issues (and the high-profile Zika virus, which is causing health concerns in multiple countries[7]), concerns surrounding water quality and cleanliness in Brazil has garnered considerable attention. A recent scene involving the diving and water polo pools turning a swamp-green color because of an algae bloom left some athletes complaining of itchy eyes.[8] While the Olympic Games have brought international attention to the impact of water quality on the athletes and visitors, the residents of Rio have been dealing with theses concerns on a daily basis for much longer. With almost 13 million people living in and around Rio, the current sewage system is struggling to cope. One news report[9] notes that “about 50 percent of what Brazilians flush down the toilet ends up in the country’s waterways. Diseases related to contaminated water are the second leading cause of death for children under five in Brazil.” Tests performed in a variety of areas, including the sailing venue of Guanabara Bay, over the course of a year found high levels of “superbugs of the sort found in hospitals on the shores of the bay.” The possibility of hospital sewage entering the municipal sewage system remains a concern.[10]

An economic recession, compounded by water concerns, political unrest, and a presently faltering healthcare system all leave many Cariocas— citizens of Rio– who rely on the public health system in a challenging and hazardous situation across the social, medical, and political spheres. With hopes of local profits from the Olympic Games ranging in the billions of dollars, much is at stake for both residents and investors.[11] Despite the risks and tribulations, many residents welcome the international event and attention, and credit the Olympics for cultivating “several underutilized, often abandoned spaces have been transformed to ones that appeal and cater to local residents”. Many “beautification” projects leave residents hoping the installation of new art and the newly constructed spaces will leave a lasting impression on its residents and visitors long after the games end.[12]  Despite this optimism, the citizens of Rio are not impacted equally by the Games.[13] The improved infrastructures will likely benefit those who already have access to services. Tourism, and tourism cash, has been weak in the favelas, or shantytowns, which house at least 25% of the population in Rio. The infrastructure inequities have even bypassed some neighborhoods entirely, leaving those residents out of the celebrations.[14]

Overall, these Olympic Games promise once again to bring the world’s cultures together in competition and camaraderie, yet they do not do so without controversy. This global spectacle illuminates athletics and sportsmanship, as well as the intersections between cultural events, politics and nationalism, power and profit, and community health. These larger issues lead to questions about what will happen to the residents of Rio after the Games have drawn to a close.

 


[1] https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2014/07/11/news-the-2014-world-cup-and-healthcare-in-brazil/

[2] http://www.dailycal.org/2014/07/08/uc-berkeley-faculty-graduate-students-look-world-cup-different-light/

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-health-emergency-idUSKBN0U716Q20151224

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/18/americas/brazil-rio-state-emergency-funding-olympics/

[5]http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-health-emergency-idUSKBN0U716Q20151224

[6] http://wuwm.com/post/let-s-do-numbers-money-spent-rio-olympics#stream/0

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/29/world/americas/brazil-zika-rio-olympics.html?_r=0

[8] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-olympics-rio-diving-pool-idUKKCN10O0UW?feedType=RSS&feedName=sportsNews

[9] http://wuwm.com/post/rios-water-problems-go-far-beyond-olympics#stream/0

[10] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/02/sport/rio-2016-olympic-games-water-quality-sailing-rowing/index.html

[11] http://www.newsweek.com/rio-2016-who-stands-benefit-successful-olympics-453094

[12] http://www.kvia.com/news/rio-olympics-bring-beautification-projects/40884340

[13] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetorch/2016/08/11/487769536/in-rios-favelas-hoped-for-benefits-from-olympics-have-yet-to-materialize

[14] http://www.reuters.com/video/2016/08/14/olympic-infrastructure-causes-suffering?videoId=369565427