Medicine and eLearning – reaching beyond borders

© Alexander Maier –

In Brussels, hands wearing surgical gloves make precise and skilful incisions into an abdomen. In Senegal, attentive participants of the “Demonstrations of Telemedicine” pre-conference workshop at eLearning Africa watch simultaneously on a big screen: The transnational videosurgery, carried out by Professor Guy-Bernard Cadière in Brussels for Senegalese medical students, was a great start to three days packed with topics concerning healthcare. The variety on offer – video conferencing on surgical matters, serious gaming for “Combating Yellow Fever“, malaria documentation, HIV treatment and much more – showed the level of quality, as well as the urgency, of innovative medical workforce training. On the African continent, where about one million physicians, nurses and midwives are lacking and basic medical services cannot be guaranteed, eLearning is seen as an indispensable means to develop human resources. At eLearning Africa, experts from all over Africa and abroad had the chance to learn more about new learning technologies and systems, technical requirements, sustainable content development and implementation strategies.

Health-related topics were one of the most prominent strands of this year’s eLearning Africa conference and sessions were every well attended. However, whilst elaborate telemedicine and telementoring projects gave an impressive overview of how to combine cutting-edge technology with medical expertise, many presentations addressed a more basic challenge. “How to apply medical knowledge to do high-tech science in low-tech environments” was the key issue discussed by deputies from government, universities, and leading healthcare and aid organisations such as AMREF; USAID; GDLN; Université de Lomé, Togo; the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Tanzania; Agence de Médecine Préventive (AMP) and IICD. Also, a particularly large number of experts from eLearning Africa’s host country, Senegal, were present.

How to manage large-scale implementations

There is an obvious lack of much-needed medical experts in most African countries. The continent, with 13.8 percent of the world’s population, is faced with the burden of 25 percent of the world’s diseases but accounts for only 1.3 percent of world’s health workforce (source: WHO). In addition to the crippling problem of HIV and malaria, the number of cardiovascular diseases is on the rise in Africa as a result of malnourishment, and like in developed nations as a result of a fat and sugar-laden diet. As there are many African governments in the process of implementing health-care reforms, the demand for cost-effective methods of knowledge-exchange and large-scale training projects is high. At eLearning Africa, several eHealth and eLearning solutions were explored and presented regarding flexibility, accessibility and portability. Tracking and evaluation were also topics of interest.

Caroline Mbindyo, who manages AMREF’s eLearning programme, for example, presented a paper in Dakar based on AMREF’s experiences on “ Implementing a Large Scale eLearning Programme – A Kenyan Experience” to help institutions that are considering introducing similar programmes in Africa. As most implementation guides have been tailored to the developed world, AMREF aimed to share lessons learned and identify critical success factors from implementing an eLearning programme in an authentic African setting. The outcome was a decisive implementation guide drawn from projects in Kenya and from replication studies in Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa, which was in great demand by partner institutions, as a conference report from Tanzania shows.

“Keep it simple” works best

Many current trends in eHealth and eLearning for health could be observed at the conference. The variety of devices shown ranged from video conference facilities to social technologies to CD-ROM, DVD, VCD, not to mention printed documents and teaching by telephone. Wireless connectivity and mobile devices were seen as important new tools for managing patient care, electronic records and medical billing in telemedicine settings.

Despite the many high-end solutions, however, there is truth in the “keep it simple” maxim. Dr Daniel Tumaini Kisimbo from the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, for example, addressed the problem of computer and internet coverage, particularly in rural areas and at sub-district levels. Although low-end video conferencing technologies are being piloted in some places such as Zanzibar, print-based distance learning is ranked as more effective and more popular in Tanzania. Thus, he advocated encouraging the use of simple technologies such as CD-ROMs, DVDs or audio tapes. However, the presenter also saw a bright future for high-end video conferencing technologies such as Digital Video conferencing, as fibre-optic cables are now being installed in countries such as Tanzania.

Célestin Compaoré, SOS/Jeunesse et Défis Burkina Faso, introduced a comprehensive virtual data bank he wants to build to track malaria. It is the first project of this kind in his country – accessible for all people concerned with the disease, including journalists. A successful large-scale blended learning programme, aimed at training those responsible for vaccination, was presented by Prof Joseph Aka, Université de Cocody Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Additionally, sustainable and cost-effective content creation and the use of Open Source tools received much attention. Here, a highly developed eLearning facility for Health Professionals training in Tanzania was presented by the German development institution InWEnt together with the Austrian eLearning supplier common sense eLearning & training consultants GmbH and the Tanzania Training Centre for Orthopaedic Technologists (TATCOT).

“Health is a predominant issue in Africa’s eLearning arena: It is absolutely essential for the Continent as it helps to solve educational challenges, such as the education of thousands of healthcare workers and the provision of better healthcare for millions of people. Progress made in important fields, such as antenatal care, shows how important these learning opportunities are. For these reasons, we will maintain and increase health expertise in the eLearning Africa programme,” says eLearning Africa initiator and organiser, Rebecca Stromeyer.


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