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29 May 2020

Saving lives with a smart phone: the virtual doctors supporting frontline healthcare in rural Zambia

Celebrating our alumni who are #ContinuingToServe – London and Zambia.

Daniel pictured next to children waving.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we’re all having to adjust to social distancing and meeting virtually. Alumnus and GP Daniel Grace (Medicine, 2012) talks to us about how a virtual service has become more vital than ever, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Zambia.

Read more #ContinuingToServe stories here.

Daniel Grace is a GP based in East Sussex. Though, unlike many of his peers in the county, many of his patients are from remote villages in Africa. It’s all thanks to the Virtual Doctors, a UK-based charity that gives medical advice, via a smart phone app, to rural health centres in Zambia.

With one doctor for every 12,000 patients and two-thirds of the population living in isolated rural areas, the healthcare system in Zambia has many challenges. For many years, the Virtual Doctors have worked with Zambia’s Health Ministry to improve the quality of primary healthcare in these hard to reach communities. They do this virtually, using ‘telemedicine’, so that patients don’t have to travel far to get care. A team of over 130 doctors help to diagnose and treat patients, remotely from the UK and elsewhere in Zambia.

Daniel joined the charity as a volunteer in 2018 and became Medical Director at the start of this year. The service has answered over 5,600 cases since being established in Zambia, and one particular case from recent times stands out, involving a young boy who had been struck by lightning.

‘The boy was seen at the rural health centre and his case was sent through the app to one of our volunteer doctors who is a burns specialist’’ Daniel explains. ‘He was able to give treatment advice, which included applying clingfilm to the boy’s burns and giving appropriate fluids to prevent dehydration. The boy was then transferred to the burns unit at Livingstone Hospital for definitive care. These first steps were vital in achieving a good outcome, and show the impact that our service can have.’

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Now, as Zambia faces the new challenge of COVID-19, telemedicine is in the spotlight and proving crucial to coronavirus care. Their service is provided virtually and supports social distancing. Information can be shared quickly and triaging done virtually reduces the burden on hospitals.

Alongside providing telemedicine support, Virtual Doctors are now working on immediate challenges such as improving water, sanitation and hygiene. They have launched an emergency appeal to raise funds to support hygiene education, to distribute equipment such as foot-operated wash stations, soap, hand sanitiser and PPE. Seeing this happen on the ground has been one of the most rewarding moments for Daniel.

‘Receiving photos and videos of the hand washing stations proudly being set up at the rural health centres we support has been fantastic,’ Daniel says.

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The Virtual Doctors are ideally suited to help in battling this outbreak. We need to work quickly and efficiently using our proven technology to help fight COVID-19 alongside the Zambian Ministry of Health.

Daniel Grace, Medical Director, the Virtual Doctors

Reflecting on society’s response to the pandemic, Daniel says:

‘One of the positives to emerge is the collective desire to help and support society, particularly groups who are vulnerable and isolated. The severity of the outbreak, and the way in which it has impacted upon every aspect of our lives, over such a short time, has prompted many individuals to pause, and potentially reconsider their life values, priorities and goals, in a very existential manner. I think the sense of service is closely linked to this, as shown by the volunteer NHS networks that have sprung up throughout the UK, and the multitude of charity fundraisers and other initiatives, that aim to support different groups during the pandemic.'

For me, this is what service is all about - giving something back and contributing to something bigger than ourselves.

Daniel Grace, Medical Director, the Virtual Doctors
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The Virtual Doctors are always keen to invite new volunteer doctors to join their team. Find out more.

Looking for a way to get involved and join the many King’s people that are #ContinuingToServe? Discover existing projects needed extra support or offer your help here.

Virtual Doctors COVID-19 response appeal

Daniel is a GP, an event and expedition doctor, and writes a wilderness medicine blog and podcast.