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Telehealth Program Connects African Cancer Clinic with U.S. Specialists

A telepathology pilot launched in Rwanda has proven successful in diagnosing and treating cancer, and will soon be expanding to several other underserved countries.

By Eric Wicklund

- A telehealth program linking cancer specialists across the U.S. with an African hospital will soon expand to several other countries, pushing cancer diagnosis into regions where there might be one pathologist per 1 million people.

The program, Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa, was launched by the the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) and the Clinton Health Access Initiative and saw its first successful telehealth consult this past May. It currently links American specialists to a 27-bed cancer center and outpatient clinic at Butaro Hospital in Northern Rwanda, established in 2012 as a joint project of the Clinton initiative, the Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Boston-based non-profit Partners in Health.

Flush from that success, the ASCP is planning to launch telepathology sites over the next three years in Uganda, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Liberia and Haiti.

“Cancer is the leading cause of death in many low- and middle-income countries because there aren’t enough pathologists or laboratory professionals using advanced technology to provide accurate and timely diagnoses,” Regina Gandour-Edwards, a surgical pathologist at the University of California-Davis and one of 14 specialists participating in the program, said in a release issued by UC-Davis. “With many cancers undiagnosed or diagnosed too late for treatment to be effective, there is a tremendous need to collaborate with health system leaders in developing countries to find cost-effective solutions that increase access to more reliable and comprehensive cancer diagnostics to save lives.” 

The telepathology program is the latest in a wide array of telehealth ventures launched in the U.S. to bring healthcare to underserved regions of the world, spurred by organization like Vecna Cares and Health eVillages. In this case, clinicians at the Butaro Cancer Center in northern Rwanda used a telemedicine platform developed by GE Healthcare and UPMC to collect biopsies, store them in the cloud and collaborate with pathologists in the U.S. on diagnoses and treatment plans.

ASCP officials say health systems in developing countries lack the resources to screen and diagnose cancer, leading to high mortality rates. In Malawi, for example, there are only two pathology labs to serve a nation of some 16 million people. By contrast, the United States averages one pathologist for every 20,000 people.

“Advanced telecommunications technology has really created a golden opportunity to bridge the gap in cancer diagnosis and care,” Gandour-Edwards said. “Instead of local clinicians having to rely on visiting pathologists from their own country or the U.S. to provide expert cancer diagnostics, this pilot project is enabling Rwandan physicians to upload complete virtual microscopic images of a biopsy or specimen into a cloud-based system, which I can view and manipulate in any way. I can change the magnification and look at every aspect of the slide to produce a complete diagnostic report.”

Officials say the telemedicine platform could be used to support diagnosis and treatment programs for other global health issues, including HIV, malaria and tuberculosis – not to mention emerging threats like Ebola and the Zika virus. 

Dig Deeper:

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A Global mHealth Project Sets its Sights on America’s Underserved

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