From time immemorial, our world has been ravaged by epidemics and pandemics. The vagaries of disease are evident, especially in Africa. Poverty and disease have caused unnecessary suffering and often leaves people, especially the poor, helplessly at its mercy.
This problem has called for innovative clinical, technical and developmental strategies, which seek to transform the country’s economy from agriculturally based to knowledge-based. Such a transformation definitely calls for investment in technology and highly skilled software developers.
In line with this, Rwandan graduates are undergoing an 11-month advanced computer programming for healthcare applications.
The course is called e-Health: Software Development and Implementation (EHSDI) is conducted at the Rwandan Information Technology Authority (RITA) premises, as part of their E-Health strategy and the larger goals of Rwanda’s Vision 2020.
A major part of the students’ training includes the further development of OpenMRS - a Medical Record System that has been implemented in some health facilities countrywide.
Amy Tang, the country’s Project Manager said the training course was introduced in 2006 after the Government of Rwanda, was impressed by the success of OpenMRS at the Rwinkwavu Hospital in the Eastern province.
“The Rwinkwavu hospital is the largest site in Rwanda that uses OpenMRS to manage its data. OpenMRS is now one of the E-Health applications being considered for a national medical record system, to be used in all health facilities,” Tang said.
According to Tang, the enormity of implementing medical record systems in health facilities countrywide will require skilled local technicians, data managers, and programmers to implement, manage, and develop software modules that will address Rwanda’s medical needs.
The EHSDI students are mentored by three experienced computer programmers.
In order to provide high quality training in this specialist field, guest lecturers from Rwanda and other countries like the United States and South Africa conduct lessons through distance-learning presentations.
Dr. Rowan Seymour, one of the mentors from Ireland, believes that training Rwandans in ICT will greatly impact the country’s transformation into a knowledge-based economy.
“ICT played a major role in the rapid growth of Ireland’s economy in the last decade. Part of the reason this happened was the availability of a workforce trained in ICT, which attracted investment from large multinational high tech companies,” Seymour said.
Seymour, who holds a PhD in Computer Science, further explained that the Rwandan students are being trained to design websites, and use the Java programming language as well as enterprise technologies to develop modules for OpenMRS.
Not only are they trained in ICT but also medical informatics as a way to bridge technology with the medical world.
According to Seymour, during the training, students will go on a field trip to the Rwinkwavu Hospital to observe how an electronic medical record system can be effectively implemented, even in a rural setting.
The other mentor is John DeRiggi, a professional Software Engineer from the USA. He said that perfection in ICT requires consistent practice and understanding.
“ICT is not a memory subject where you have to memorise programmes and codes. It’s rather a subject of understanding and practice. It is a skill that is developed just like sports; the more you practice the better you become,” DeRiggi explained. Other than this, DeRiggi underscored the necessity of making classes interactive and interesting.
“What’s interesting about teaching in Rwanda is the willingness that students have to learn. Working as a team has made teaching easy, because we let students hold discussions in English, French and Kinyarwanda, in order to grasp difficult concepts,” he said. This teaching method has not only proved effective for the mentors, but also for the students.
For Michèle Kayiganwa, who is a recent computer-science graduate from a local university, the fact that she can get practical experience with her ICT knowledge is key.
“At university, we studied a lot of theory and had a small computer lab which could not accommodate everyone during lessons, but in this training course, we received laptops and practice what we learn,” Kayiganwa explained.
Benjamin Muhoza, also an ICT graduate, cannot wait to use his skills to make Rwanda a better place.
“This software development course is very important for me because by the time I finish, I will be able to develop and create new software for not only the hospitals, but also for other organisations that need to manage their record keeping systems,” Muhoza said.
The idea behind the software development course is that it is a practical and major stepping stone towards Rwanda’s capacity building. According to Patrick Nyirishema the RITA supervisor overseeing the training course.
“The OpenMRS training course is a small part of the big picture. The idea is to train people in advanced computer programming and software development in general as a necessary condition for the transformation to occur.”