KAMPALA — As the world struggles to fight COVID-19, with countries implementing stringent containment measures, patients with cardiovascular diseases in Uganda are embracing digital health to access care.
Twalib Aliku, a consultant cardiologist at Uganda Heart Institute (UHI) Mulago, told Xinhua in a recent interview that digital health has the power to improve awareness, prevention and management of cardiovascular diseases.
Uganda has had two stringent lockdowns since it registered its first COVID-19 case in March last year, with containment measures including the cessation of public and private transport being imposed, causing patients to miss doctors’ appointments and have no access to other health care due to limited transport. This has led to loss of life, according to the Ministry of Health.
At UHI Mulago, the number of staff and inpatients were reduced to prevent the risk of COVID-19 transmission, said Emmy Okello, a consultant cardiologist. Community outreaches to create awareness on prevention and management of heart diseases were also stopped.
Patients were also prevented from being visited by their families and loved ones because of the risk they faced of contracting COVID-19.
Aliku said because of the closed public and private transport, patients resorted to use of digital health applications to bridge the gap in provision of cardiologist services.
“We faced challenges especially during the pandemic because patients were not allowed to freely move across to access their doctors. So we had to use digital tools like the internet and social media to communicate with our patients,” Aliku said.
He said doctors used mobile phones, teleconferences and webinars to reach most of the affected heart patients in the countryside. He added that for now, outreaches have been replaced by webinars to connect the headquarters to other outreach centers in different referral hospitals across the country.
Latest figures by the Uganda Communications Commission indicate that the pandemic has driven up internet access due to the change in the working culture where people have to work remotely. According to the communications regulator, one in every two Ugandans has internet access.
Aliku said as the world commemorates World Heart Day on Sept. 29 with a theme, “Use Heart to Connect,” there is a need for continued creation of awareness in communities so that people can access information about the causes and treatment of heart diseases. He believed that patients, communities, and health workers can use digital tools for better prevention, diagnosis and care of heart related conditions.
Uganda continues to face increased cases of cardiovascular diseases due to the changing lifestyles, according to Ministry of Health. UHI figures show that currently in Uganda, every 1 in 4 adults have high blood pressure. Eighty percent of them are unaware of the disease.
Emmy Okello, the consultant cardiologist, said UHI faces a challenge of accommodating the high number of patients who flock to the center.
He said the center on average receives between 100 to 300 patients a day and over 70 patients are admitted especially those referred by hospitals in the countryside.
Okello said UHI partners with specialists from across the globe who come to the center to share experiences.
He said they have plans of working with Peking University Hospital, China, in handling heart patients especially in regional hospitals in northern and southwestern Uganda.
“A team from Peking University Hospital, China visited UHI in January and we started collaboration as a team to handle heart patients in the two referral regional hospitals (Lira and Kabale), but a pandemic caused some delay for a while,” Okello said, adding UHI is also training some medical personnel to become cardiologists in efforts to increase on the personnel working on the overwhelming numbers of patients.