When 20-year-old Annette had unprotected sex, she turned to friends for advice.
What could she do to prevent pregnancy? Could she buy morning-after pills from a pharmacy? Didn’t they have bad side effects? Her friends could not help.
At the time of Annette’s dilemma, The Medical Concierge Group (TMCG), an organisation that provides health information and services to Ugandans via telephone, skype or social media, had not set up shop.
Today, however, with TMCG having been set up in August 2013, some university students are getting their health information from the doctors and pharmacists that man the call centre.
“People send messages to our inbox (Facebook) asking whether if they wash after having sex they will prevent HIV. Some university students ask us about emergency contraception while others ask us about how to use condoms,” Dr John Mark Bwanika, the director TMCG, says.
The service is not for university students only, however.
“Anyone can call. As long as they have a phone, they can reach us and they will be charged normal call rates,” Bwanika says.
What TMCG is
The organisation offers services for all, but what exactly is it?
Bwanika says it is a medical call centre, set up by and comprising doctors, pharmacists, IT professionals and a lawyer, which has harnessed newer technologies such as phones and social media to provide cheap and timely health information.
On calling TMCG, a doctor or pharmacist will listen to the caller’s symptoms and advise on whether the caller needs emergency care. If the caller does not need emergency care but needs a physical examination from a doctor, they are directed to a nearby health centre.
Where further help can be provided on phone, the caller is told what tests they ought to do. Medicine for symptom alleviation and first aid information are also prescribed via phone. All by a doctor or pharmacist.
Bwanika says in the event one needs emergency care, they will dispatch an ambulance, at the caller’s request.
“We have an ambulance management system, which involves us using GPS to track ambulances, and in case a caller asks for an ambulance, we dispatch the ambulance that is nearest to them,” he says.
“With Google mapping, we are able to locate health centres nearest to a caller and direct them there,” Bwanika says.
They also have a database of health centres and the services they provide. They also have information on prices for the services provided by some health centres.
“In case a caller requires a chest x-ray, we direct them to the health centre that provides that service. This way, they do not have to jump on a boda boda and go from health centre to health centre looking for one that does chest x-rays,” he adds.
Allan, who called TMCG complaining of dizziness, sweating and fever, says that the services are “ok; the gentleman handled me nicely. I will call again when I am sick.”
Darlene, who called complaining of a headache above the eyebrows, fatigue, decreased appetite and coughing on exposure to cold, says she found the feedback by TMCG “exhaustive”.
“I was asked for how long I had experienced the symptoms and I said two days. I was advised to do a malaria test, take diclofenac for the pain, multivitamins for my appetite and Cetrizine because I was possibly suffering from allergies. Before being prescribed diclofenac, I was asked if I have peptic ulcers, [because] certain painkillers are not prescribed for people with ulcers.”
Another “Dr Google”?
But is TMCG another Dr Google? Dr Bwanika says it is not.
“The information Google doctor gives is not filtered to suit setting. Our information is more guided. If you call in from Mbale, we know you are susceptible to jiggers,” he says.
As Dr Edward Naddumba of China-Uganda Friendship hospital, Naguru, and other doctors have previously said, virtual doctors are no substitute for a real doctor. Bwanika echoes them and says their service is no substitute for physical examinations.
But, where one can get a possible diagnosis and treatment via the phone or social media, one may skip the doctor’s queue, and consultation fees.
Written by Diana Nabiruma