Health workers in ten provinces of Laos have received training in providing telehealth consultation services to better support patients in remote areas.
Training sessions on the provision of telehealth services were held throughout December by the Department of Health Personnel, Ministry of Health (MoH), with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
More than 150 health providers from provinces including Sekong, Xayaboury, Phongsaly, and Vientiane Province participated in the training sessions. The health providers, who had been working in quarantine centers and isolation facilities since the Covid-19 pandemic, were taught out to use telehealth as a modality to provide essential reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health (RMNCAH) services, as well as providing Covid-19 prevention and protection information.
“Telehealth makes it convenient to connect with patients and provide counseling to them. We can also ensure that they are referred to the hospital on time in case of an emergency. In addition, telehealth is a good way to continue providing health services during Covid-19 to reduce the risk of exposure and transmission,” said Mr. Choun-ou-meaun, a 32-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist at Sekong Provincial Hospital.
The interactive sessions included the referral system, family planning services, documentation, antenatal care, delivery, postnatal care, mental health, and counseling skills, including role-plays.
Previously, MoH and UNFPA had trained health providers from six central and southern provinces when the influx of female migrants returning home was high. This capacity building and the provision of telehealth equipment have contributed to ensuring responsiveness and continuity of RMNCAH services while keeping both health providers and patients safe during the pandemic.
Piloted in 2020, the use of the digital provision of essential RMNCAH services has seen a positive result because over 80% of the Lao population owns a mobile phone (Census, 2015); this innovation brings patients and health providers closer than before. It provides quick and immediate assistance to women, especially in times of crisis.
Providing essential RMNCAH services in rural and remote areas is a challenge in Laos; many women in hard-to-reach areas either do not have access to health care facilities or have difficulties reaching them due to long distances and lack of transportation. Lockdown and disruption of RMNCAH services due to Covid-19 have exacerbated the situation.
The coronavirus pandemic has set back a number of indicators such as the use of contraceptives, which declined 15% in 2021, leading to a higher number of unwanted pregnancies, an increase in women seeking post abortion care due to complications of unsafe abortions, and an increase in stillbirths due to reduced access to antenatal care. Telehealth connects women with the health providers and vice versa whenever needed and wherever they are.
While telehealth represents a significant milestone in the health sector response to COVID-19, improvement is needed to scale up to cover all women of reproductive age, especially vulnerable and marginalized groups.
“We have to consider those who do not own a mobile phone or a smartphone, and ethnic people who do not speak Lao like in Sekong there are many ethnic minorities,” said Mr. Choun-ou-meaun, who suggested making available diverse communication tools and channels to break language barriers.
In recognition of improvement, telehealth sheds light on the future of community-based RMNCAH services in all situations with or without crisis. Further investments are required to support MOH to expand the telehealth modality to other provinces, so that women and girls can access essential health services, not only during the Covid-19 pandemic but also during seasonal floodings and for areas where access is difficult.
UNFPA will continue to support MOH to ensure universal access to quality and inclusive sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.
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