Indexed on: 17 Sep '20Published on: 16 Sep '20Published in: PloS one
Non-physician clinicians (NPCs) in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) often have little physical proximity to the resources-equipment, supplies or skills-needed to deliver effective care, forcing them to refer patients to distant sites. Unlike equipment or supplies, which require dedicated supply chains, physician/specialist skills needed to support NPCs can be sourced and delivered through telecommunication technologies. In LMICs however, these skills are scarce and sparsely distributed, making it difficult to implement commonly used real-time (synchronous), hub-and-spoke telemedicine paradigms. An asynchronous teleconsultations service was implemented in Turkana County, Kenya, connecting NPCs with a volunteer network of remote physicians and specialists. In 2017-18, the service supported over 100 teleconsultations and referrals across 20 primary healthcare clinics and two hospitals. This qualitative study aimed to explore the impact of the telemedicine intervention on health system stakeholders, and perceived health-related benefits to patients. Data were collected using Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based, positive approach to assessing interventions and informing systems change. We highlight the impact of provider-to-provider asynchronous teleconsultations on multiple stakeholders and healthcare processes. Provider benefits include improved communication and team work, increased confidence and capacity to deliver services in remote sites, and professional satisfaction for both NPCs and remote physicians. Health system benefits include efficiency improvements through improved care coordination and avoiding unnecessary referrals, and increased equity and access to physician/specialist care by reducing geographical, financial and social barriers. Providers and health system managers recognised several non-health benefits to patients including increased trust and care seeking from NPCs, and social benefits of avoiding unnecessary referrals (reduced social disruption, displacement and costs). The findings reveal the wider impact that modern teleconsultation services enabled by mobile technologies and algorithms can have on LMIC communities and health systems. The study highlights the importance of viewing provider-to-provider teleconsultations as complex health service delivery interventions with multiple pathways and processes that can ultimately improve health outcomes.