Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University are helping healthcare professionals in Ghana in West Africa reach out to patients with neurological conditions, particularly in rural areas, using telerehabilitation.
Telerehabilitation is the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to provide rehabilitation services to people remotely in their homes.
There are only 10 neurologists in the whole of Ghana with a population of around 33 million - 45% live in rural communities and receive little or no rehabilitation if they suffer a stroke, spinal injury, Parkinson’s disease or cerebral palsy.
Compared to the UK, which has around 57,000 physiotherapists, 43,000 occupational therapists and 25,000 speech and language therapists, Ghana has around 120 physiotherapists, 60 occupational therapists and a handful of speech and language therapists. Similarly, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow alone has 37 neurologists and Ghana has only 10 neurologists across the country.
Professor in Allied Health Science Lorna Paul and Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy Dr Katie Thomson, from the School of Health and Life Sciences Research Centre for Health (ReaCH), have recently visited Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi.
They have been working with neurologists, allied health professions and patients to help them develop telerehabilitation services for people with neurological conditions.
Professor Paul already runs the online rehabilitation platform Giraffe Healthcare, providing high-quality, personalised healthcare programmes online, to the NHS, charities, hospices and community groups in the UK.
It was the success of Giraffe Healthcare, and the many research papers that have been published by rehabilitation experts in ReaCH on telerehabilitation, that sparked the partnership between Glasgow Caledonian and healthcare professionals in Ghana.
Professor Paul said: “Our partnership began after we were contacted by an enthusiastic and inspirational neurologist at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Professor Fred Steve Sarfo.
“He is very pro-rehab and telerehab. He was impressed by our research into this field, and wanted to work with us to explore telerehabilitation services in Ghana for people with neurological conditions.
“One of the big challenges he spoke about was the lack of trained healthcare professionals in Ghana, many of whom leave Ghana after their training to get jobs overseas. He is desperate to retain staff and this is his passion. He told us he is very short of ‘trained hands’ and needs different models of care, such as telerehab to get services to patients, particularly in rural areas.”
“We are working with Glasgow Caledonian University on a telerehabilitation project. Our main goal is to make sure the rehabilitation needs in a resource-limiting country like Ghana will be met through telerehabilitation.“This need has arisen because we have a lot of patients with disabilities, and we have very few trained hands to be able to offer rehabilitation services. We think telerehabilitation provides us with an excellent avenue to reach out to our patients.”
Dr Thomson highlighted the challenges people in Ghana, particularly in rural areas, experience in getting care and support.
“Sometimes people have to travel long distances for rehabilitation and when they get there, there can be long queues. Telerehab saves the journey, the cost, the time and queuing up. It makes rehabilitation more accessible for everyone,” she said.
Dr Thomson explained some of the challenges in implementing telerehabilitation: “The patients spoke about having access to mobile phone technology that would allow telerehab. Access to smartphones isn’t universal in Ghana however and the cost of data packages can be expensive. Internet access is patchy, particularly in rural areas. WhatsApp seemed to be the most accepted by patient and staff groups as the best platform for rehab.
Professor Paul said the next step was understand the training needs of staff to deliver safe and effective telerehabilitation: “Our ambition is to have all the healthcare professionals who deal with neurology patients trained up to provide telerehab to their patients in the rural areas for the very first time.
“We are sending a survey out to the healthcare professionals to ask them what their training needs would be to run telerehab sessions online, keep data secure and what equipment they need.”
Other experts involved in the joint project are Glasgow Caledonian’s Co-Director of the Research Centre for Health (ReaCH), Professor of Neurological Rehabilitation Frederike Van Wijck, and Professor of Stroke Care and Rehabilitation Marian Brady, working closely with Occupational Therapy Lecturer Eric Nkansah Opoku, from Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Research Assistant Shadrack Osei Asibey and Occupational Therapist Derrick Antwi. The Academy of Medical Sciences funded the forming of the research network.