Telepathology is a new innovative use of telehealth that is helping cancer patients at Butaro Hospital in Northern Rwanda access treatment from cancer specialists in the US.

The programme, referred to as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa, was launched by the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) and the Clinton Health Access Initiative to improve cancer diagnosis in underserviced regions in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the ASCP, health systems in developing countries lack the resources to screen and diagnose cancer, leading to high mortality rates.

“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,” said a surgical pathologist at the University of California-Davis and one of 14 specialists participating in the programme, Regina Gandour-Edwards.

“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,” continued Gandour-Edwards.

The telepathology programme’s first successful telehealth consult took place in May 2016 and, due to its success, the ASCP is planning to launch telepathology sites over the next three years in Uganda, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Liberia and Haiti.

“Advanced telecommunications technology has created a golden opportunity to bridge the gap in cancer diagnosis and care,” said Gandour-Edwards.

“Instead of local clinicians having to rely on visiting pathologists from their own country or the US 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,” concluded Gandour-Edwards.

Officials believe the telehealth platform could be extended to support diagnosis and treatment programmes for other global health issues such as HIV, malaria and TB, as well as emerging threats like Ebola and the Zika virus.

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