A pioneering trans-continental tele-mentoring link which enables surgeons in Northumberland and North Tyneside to train their counterparts in Tanzania has won a top national award.
Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s ground-breaking web-based audio-visual link with Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC) has won the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) award for surgical team of the year.
The tele-mentoring link has enabled Liam Horgan, consultant surgeon at Northumbria Healthcare, and his surgical team, to teach laparoscopic (keyhole) surgical techniques through a dedicated IT link to their KCMC colleagues 5,000 miles away who serve a population of around 13 million people in the north of Tanzania.
Thanks to this training, where both surgeons can see each other and be mentored through the operation as it takes place, surgeons in Tanzania felt confident enough to perform laparoscopic operations on their own after the initial two years of training.
As a direct result of this pioneering initiative, between 2005 and 2013 more than 500 laparoscopic procedures were successfully completed, substantially reducing overcrowding on surgical wards and the time patients need to stay hospital. This is very important when patients have to pay for their healthcare services.
Judges at the awards praised the Northumbria team’s ‘desire to extend their mentoring well past the acquisition of surgical skill’.
The BMJ award comes 15 years after Northumbria Healthcare’s link with KCMC was set up and involves teams of volunteers who travel to the centre each year to deliver training to help improve healthcare for patients. The partnership is one of the most longstanding in the UK, and is often held up as an example of good practice.
Mr Horgan said: “Setting up a tele-mentoring link was a real triumph for the whole team; we had to overcome a series of obstacles associated with infrastructure and technology in Tanzania, and therefore we are delighted that our hard work has been recognised with this national award.
“The link has been revolutionary – to be able to train surgeons remotely rather than face-to-face once a year has had a crucial impact and enabled us to share our expertise and help Dr Kondo and his team at KCMC to improve the experiences of so many more patients.
“It provided the critical bridge, or half-way house, between direct mentoring by myself at KCMC and the surgeons there operating independently without direct supervision.
“Laparoscopic surgery is exactly what was needed in Tanzania to reduce the number of patients waiting for operations in crowded surgical wards and we are delighted to play a part in that.
“To me this is an example of teamwork and a strong relationship that straddles two continents making our world smaller and hopefully safer and better for patients.”
Dr Chilonga Kondo, head of surgery at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre who has arrived in the UK for the awards, said: “We are very proud of the tele-mentoring link because it has transformed surgical services in the country and it is seen as an icon for the whole of Tanzania. We are delighted that we have won this national award.
“When we started laparoscopic surgery under the guidance of the surgeons in Northumbria, we could only carry out operations when the team was visiting which was a great step forward, however, not sustainable in the long term.
“Establishing the link has enabled us to improve our technical and surgical skills, given us the confidence to practise on our own and ultimately means we can carry our more operations and help more patients.”
Due to its success, the same technology has been used to set up a link between the operating theatre at KCMC and the adjoining college, enabling surgeons to train their own students in laparoscopic techniques.
“This is all thanks to the hard work of Northumbria which has enabled KCMC to become the leading centre for laparoscopic surgery in the country,” said Dr Kondo.
Brenda Longstaff, international programmes manager at Northumbria Healthcare, said: “The project has been a triumph of international collaboration and has been inspired by the commitment of two surgeons who operate in very different financial circumstances.
“It was no easy task establishing the link considering the technological challenges of IT infrastructure, particularly the availability of electricity supply, and this nomination is testament to the dedication of all those involved: the surgeons, nurses and engineers who worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition.
“None of this would have been possible without the IT solutions developed by OR Networks, the direct support of the Tanzania Telecommunications Company and generosity of our sponsors and fundraisers who gave us the support we needed to make it happen. It has been an amazing achievement which has been topped off by this award.”
Organised by the BMJ, one of the world’s leading medical journals, the awards recognise and celebrate the inspirational work done by doctors and their teams.
The awards ceremony took place on 8 May in London.
Due to Northumbria Healthcare’s success in Tanzania, teams are sharing their expertise in Ghana to help them set up an occupational therapy service.