Telemedicine: Bridging a Healthcare Gap in Georgia
23 January 2024
As challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic was, it brought forth some positive transformations in health services. When the pandemic hit Georgia, with forced lockdowns and overwhelmed hospitals, telemedicine had an opportunity to grow remarkably. Initially driven by necessity, today, the use of telecommunications to provide healthcare remotely has proven extremely valuable in reaching patients in Georgia’s remote and mountainous regions, roughly 40 per cent of the population.
In rural areas with limited healthcare infrastructure and a shortage of medical professionals, residents often face significant challenges in accessing timely and comprehensive care. This is exacerbated by long distances, harsh and unpredictable weather, and limited transportation.
Under my leadership, as the UN Resident Coordinator in Georgia, and in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the UN in Georgia has partnered with the Ministry of Health to connect patients to primary health care, overcoming significant geographical barriers. Successful negotiations with the European Union Delegation, which I facilitated, resulted in the approval and launch of a €4.7 million (US$ 5 million) telemedicine initiative.
Complementing other UN health efforts, the programme has provided over 1,700 medical furniture and devices, nearly 9,200 medical supplies, and training on the usage and maintenance of equipment to 400 ambulatory doctors across 55 municipalities in Georgia. We continue to support medical personnel in enhancing surveillance, data management, and contact tracing capabilities, including through the implementation of the outbreak investigation tool Go.Data, for field data collection during public health emergencies.
Prioritizing critical infrastructure, the country's digital transformation has enabled patients to consult with healthcare providers and raise their awareness about health-related issues from their own homes. This advancement allows doctors to prescribe medicines, obtain additional expertise, enter immunization data, conduct ante-natal care consultations with expectant mothers, and compile reports.
Improving the Continuity of Care
The scope and potential for telemedicine to play a significant role in Georgia is expansive. Georgia has a significant burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which are responsible for 88% of all deaths in the country. Various factors, such as a lack of preventive measures, poor early detection services, a lack of specialized healthcare services in rural areas and inadequate control of chronic diseases are among the main reasons for this. Virtual counselling and digital health solutions have emerged as a solution to expand access to healthcare for these patients.
With the support of the UN’ s programme, regular virtual check-ins with nurses, doctors and specialists help monitor chronic conditions, identify potential health concerns early, and ensure that patients receive effective ongoing care. In one such instance, more than 3,000 women in Georgia have now registered for cervical, breast and thyroid cancer screening, with the help of their family doctors.
Remote child development services have also been introduced in approximately 50 rural clinics throughout Georgia, providing telecare platforms, medical devices, and ICT equipment. Digital telemedicine solutions make routine health checks for children and early childhood intervention specialists more accessible and affordable. Online antenatal care visits are also available for pregnant women with special needs or from remote areas.
We are also supporting the establishment of virtual learning networks, which connect rural family doctors with professionals, such as developmental pediatricians, child psychologists, and youth psychiatrists to mentor and guide community practitioners and ensure the delivery of high-quality services.
Capacity building of doctors and nurses
Today, doctors have access to the latest professional information through a common online information platform based at the Emergency Coordination and Emergency Assistance Center of Georgia and through the Continuous Medical Education platform based at Tbilisi State Medical University. In this project, the WHO has formulated telemedicine clinical guidance and care pathways, outlining the requirements for running teleconsultation services associated with priority non-communicable diseases. Rural doctors are also being trained to conduct online consultations using digital medical devices, resulting in advanced competencies in telemedicine and increased skills in using digital solutions.
Digital Future for Healthcare
The UN's telemedicine initiative is part of our broader support for Georgia's health agenda, aligning with the commitment to SDG 3.8 for universal health coverage. Looking ahead, we believe telemedicine can facilitate universal access to a sustainable primary healthcare system, regardless of location, and at minimal cost, utilizing digital solutions to bridge the healthcare gap for the most vulnerable communities.
At the 2023 SDG Summit, UN Secretary-General Guterres called for the prioritization of six key areas to accelerate the SDGs, including digital connectivity. We need to now lift the Summit’s Political Declaration off the page and reaffirm our unwavering commitment to inclusive digital transformation and a healthier future for all.