Dr Eimy Barahona, a physician, social entrepreneur, and the co-founder of TELESAN, the first telehealth network in Honduras, was awarded the inaugural Marc Mitchell Leadership and Innovation Award at the 2021 Global Digital Health Forum. We interviewed her to learn more about her work.
Tell us about your journey in digital health
I am a doctor from Honduras. I do my social service in an indigenous community with a population of approximately 100,000 people with only one hospital. Due to the geographical terrain, it isn’t easy to travel within the community to access health services. I realised firsthand that most patients came to the hospital with many complications because they did not receive treatment early. So, my colleagues and I rethought the model of care we were operating that focused on attending to patients who were able to come to the hospital because we thought that was not enough.
Can you give a brief description of the initiative that won you the Marc Mitchell Innovation and Leadership Award?
After seeing that many people missed out on treatment, we started a telemedicine not-for-profit initiative, TELESAN. The platform provides remote consultations with 400 volunteer general practitioners, nurses, and specialists, including paediatricians, gynaecologists, and ophthalmologists. The platform features mobile phone messaging, making communication more efficient between the hospital and patients. This means that patients do not need to travel often to seek healthcare except when they need physical examination and tests. I was motivated by a strong desire to extend health services to communities in hard-to-reach places because provision and access to healthcare were very low. I was also inspired by the success of telehealth initiatives in other countries. With the platform, a person needs some hardware and internet connectivity to reach specialised medical practitioners. In return, the volunteer medical practitioner receives a certificate acknowledging their work. The platform is linked to the public health system for sustainability and optimising the already available resources. So TELESAN is not just a digital platform. It is a network of dedicated health professionals designed with unique sections for different health care specialists.
Many initiatives were considered for this award; what set yours apart from the rest?
I think it is the context of our work and the geographical location. Digital health in many parts of Latin America is steadily growing, unlike other regions with advanced digital health systems and solutions. I think TELESAN is a testament to the dedication of people in Latin America to domestically develop and adapt digital health solutions by people who understand the health and digital needs in the region. I believe that my vision and conviction of bringing this digital solution to life with no prior knowledge in information systems I think we were able to learn from many other regions. We developed a unique tool that directly addresses healthcare challenges.
What difference has your initiative created?
One of the main reasons that motivated my colleagues to start TELESAN was the weak infrastructure and healthcare system. Our key achievement has been expanding our operations to fourteen healthcare practices by the end of 2021, and we are planning to increase our cover to hundred healthcare units. TELESAN champions a robust network of volunteer health professionals who have provided services to over 25,000 people, including children, pregnant women, and people with chronic illnesses. Additionally, the digital platform has a portal for e-learning that many of the volunteers use to update and advance their skills. We have been able to gain support from other sectors to support our work which is an opportunity for efficient service delivery, collaboration and growing the platform. To ensure sustainability and the platform’s success, we invest in networking and frequent meetings without partners, volunteers, and the Ministry of Health leadership to share updates on progress and areas of support.
The TELESAN Team was preparing to provide health services.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years with this initiative?
I see TELESAN growing into a national platform that will extend services to all people who need this service. We hope that in 5 years, we will have a solid sustainability plan to enable us to adapt to the everchanging digital landscape. We plan to share our lessons to support other digital health tools within Latin America and worldwide. I am eager to learn about the many ways to advance TELESAN to reach more people. I advocate for universal health coverage, so I hope to continue working toward disrupting injustices and inequalities in healthcare service delivery. Because the work that we do is not about numbers, it’s about people; it’s about lives.
How has your membership to the Global Digital Health Network helped you in your work?
Being part of the Global Digital Health Network has enabled me to remain connected to digital health innovators worldwide. I have learned a lot from other initiatives, and I have adopted lessons to improve the TELESAN platform while supporting other initiatives.
What lessons would you like to share with the broader digital health community?
When I read the biography of Dr Marc Mitchell, I was truly inspired and reassured by people who have gone out of their comfort zone to create better health outcomes. Sometimes people hesitate to make changes in their communities because of the hidden feeling of impostor syndrome or, at times, doubting that their work is enough. When I thought of starting the TELESAN digital health platform, I was a physician without advanced knowledge in designing digital tools. What I was doing then was providing care to my patients in the hospital. So what I have learned is that when you find something that does not work in society, but you have the imagination of what you want to achieve, the drive to create a better society and surrounding yourself with supportive and like-minded people, you can achieve a lot.
About the Marc Mitchell Award
In 2019, the Global Digital Health Network announced the launch of the Marc Mitchell Leadership and Innovation award, recognizing exceptional individuals early in their digital health career who have demonstrated a commitment to making quality care accessible in all settings, especially in low- and middle-income countries, through the use of digital health. The Global Digital Health Network chose to honor Marc’s memory with the 2021 annual award to inspire and nurture health professionals whose resolve and creative ideas using digital technology are improving delivery of quality health care.
Dr. Marc Mitchell was the founder of D-tree International and a pioneer in the field of digital health, focused on improving the quality of healthcare and health systems through the use of digital technologies. One of the main challenges Marc worked to address was the development of electronic clinical decision support systems to replace traditional, bulky, expensive and largely unused paper-based algorithms. At a time when apps were just emerging, Dr. Mitchell saw the potential for digital technology on mobile devices to both provide step-by-step guidance to frontline health workers as they met with clients and integrate that care into a comprehensive health care system. These tools led to improved clinical protocol adherence and better health outcomes—and provided some of the earliest evidence showing the positive impact of adopting digital technologies in the health sector. Marc began his career in international health in the 1970s in Tanzania, where he worked as a paediatrician. He later served as Assistant Secretary of Health in Papua New Guinea, advised the Government of Indonesia in its family planning efforts, and consulted with WHO on its digital and mobile health programmes. Over the course of his career, he lived and worked in Tanzania, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, and Myanmar, and supported projects in over 40 countries. He was also on the faculty at Harvard School of Public Health and was dedicated to teaching and mentoring the next generation of public health leaders. Dr Mitchell’s work in digital health was guided by his passionate belief that all people everywhere should have access to high-quality health care.