World Telehealth Initiative connects medical experts with vulnerable population in Malawi

April 20, 2020

As Texas Children’s continues to navigate through these unprecedented times, our focus has been, and will continue to be, the health and safety of our patients and staff. Extra precautions have been taken and additional processes have been put in place to ensure we keep moving forward as a strong unit. But we know our responsibility reaches far beyond Houston and its surrounding areas. As a recognized leader in global health, Texas Children’s has worked diligently to create adaptive solutions for our clinics in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.

One of those solutions was rolled out this week in Malawi, Africa, at the Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence-Malawi (COE) where children and young adults with HIV/AIDS are tested, diagnosed and treated. The InTouch Lite V2 (often referred to as ‘Lite’) device was deployed to the COE as part of our efforts to provide patient care during the COVID-19 crisis in sub-Saharan Africa by utilizing available resources.

This remote presence robot, which was donated to Texas Children’s Global Women’s Health program in Malawi by the World Telehealth Initiative in 2018, allows for remote monitoring of patients and can be maneuvered electronically at the bedside to assist in care delivery. The device will be used during in the upcoming months at the Baylor-Malawi COE to assist in patient care.

“The technology is amazing even with Malawi’s bandwidth challenges,” said Dr. Jeff Wilkinson, an accomplished female pelvic and reconstructive surgeon with Texas Children’s Global Women’s Health Program. “It removes the location barrier and allows us to provide expertise from afar when we can’t be on location.”

Wilkinson said he’s used the robot many times in the past at the Fistula Care Center and thinks it will be a great resource at the COE, especially during this unique time of need.

By deploying this resource for use at the COE, health care workers have the ability to interact with patients remotely to reduce transmission of the infection among their immunocompromised patient population. This quick adaption and working partnership between Texas Children’s and World Telehealth will allow the teams to continue safely providing the same high-quality care and treatment for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition while limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Sharon Allen, executive director of World Telehealth Initiative, said the robot is connected to a proprietary worldwide network built and operated by InTouch Health and is ready to be used once she finishes training the physicians who will be accessing the machine to see patients. The training takes about 20 minutes and is indicative of just how easy the device is to operate, Allen said.

“After hitting just a few buttons – boom – you are right there,” she said. “And if there are any problems, we are here to help.

The mission of the World Telehealth Initiative is to provide medical expertise to the world’s most vulnerable communities to build local capacity and deliver core health services, through a network of volunteer health care professionals supported with state-of-the-art technology. Part of that mission is to ensure health care workers know how to use and deploy the technology.

“We are available to help in any way possible,” Allen said. “Our main goal is to connect medical experts with people who might not receive health care otherwise.”

Phoebe Nyasulu, Executive Director of BIPAI’s operations in Malawi, said she is looking forward to seeing the robot in action at the COE and believes the machine will help her staff protect themselves and their patients and families, many of whom are immunocompromised and possibly susceptible to COVID-19.

Malawi has seen an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases over the past week, leading to a 21-day national lockdown. Texas Children’s and Baylor College of Medicine are participating at national levels with local and regional leaders to shape policies aimed at curbing the impact of COVID-19 and protecting the work that’s already been done to strengthen their nations’ health care systems.

“The use of the robot Lite is one of many ways health care workers can continue to care for our patients in the safest way possible,” Nyasulu said. “We have to continue to be innovative and open to ideas like this as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 public health crisis. We are thankful we have partners like Texas Children’s, Baylor and the World Telehealth Initiative to help us along the way.”