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Doctor uses Skype to support hospital in rural Africa

A nurse first told Dr. Maneesh Batra about Uganda’s rural Kiwoko Hospital while they were working together on a late-night shift at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. It was 2002 and Maneesh was a young resident with a broad interest in the growing field of “global medicine.”

The nurse had spent time in Uganda and recognized Maneesh as someone who could really make a difference at the remote hospital. Maneesh, however, was hesitant. Kiwoko focused on newborn health and Maneesh believed he could make a bigger impact by working with older children. The nurse urged him “to give it a try” and he eventually agreed to a two-month commitment.

His experience in Uganda changed everything. “Of the 9 million children who die each year around the world, almost 4 million are newborns,” he says. “I saw that they are dying of completely preventable causes. And with the support of some inspirational professors and the hospital back in Seattle, I found the path to dedicate my career to newborn survival.”

Now, ten years later, as the Associate Director of the Pediatric Residency Program at Children’s Hospital, Maneesh still works with Kiwoko and also sends medical residents to rural Kenya. In these regions, there are few dependable landlines and little mobile reception. But the introduction of basic internet connections have made it possible for Maneesh to use Skype calls to coordinate with physicians, residents, and staff on the ground in a way that wasn’t even imaginable when he first visited in 2002. He explains, “By working together, we now have very good survival rates of infants and are working on a model of care that is generalizable to the wider developing world.”

Kiwoko started with one missionary treating people out of the back of his Land Rover in the 1980s. Soon a school was founded, which became a clinic and eventually a hospital supported by missionaries and the non-profit ISIS Foundation. Maneesh explains, “In the developing world, most medical facilities are in major urban areas and many sick babies can’t get there in time. We need more rural health posts like Kiwoko but, traditionally, such hospitals have been isolated from the medical advances of the outside world.” In order to coordinate with Kiwoko from Seattle, Maneesh says, “All of our communications happen by email and Skype. The more complex matters are handled by Skype. And we are planning to use it for direct ‘tele-medicine‘ in the future.”

The Children’s Hospital residency program also sends four young doctors to Kenya for a few months every year. Each of the residents is partnered with a pediatric resident from the University of Nairobi in the capital city and they are then placed in a community in far western, rural Kenya. Maneesh says that the goal is to “get the residents outside of their comfort zone and get them to really work within the local community.”

“But it is essential for them to discuss and contextualize their experience,” he adds. “Once per week, we have an hour-and-a-half group Skype call with the residents, the mentor from the University of Nairobi, me or another mentor here at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the local mentor in the rural community.”

Through hard work and the adoption of new technology, Maneesh and Children’s Hospital are pioneering a new era of global health and medical education. In the end, he says that “the most rewarding thing is seeing the next generation of trainees becoming inspired to focus their careers improving the health of children where it matters most.”

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