The My Doctor app, which can be downloaded on smartphones, pairs Yemenis with doctors around the world who have volunteered to participate
Yemen's 'online hospital' connects locals in need with doctors abroad
By the numbers, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe: millions nationwide are suffering dangerous levels of food insecurity, and diseases like cholera and malaria have run rampant. About half of all health facilities in Yemen are no longer fully operational, and now the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to stretch the country’s health sector far beyond its capacity.
Since the war began over five years ago, large numbers of Yemenis, and especially professionals like doctors, have relocated to safer locations in Yemen or moved abroad. The scale of the suffering, compounded by the shortage of doctors and the often-prohibitive costs of travel to a working clinic, has left many of Yemen’s war-injured and ill to suffer in silence, without the support of trained medical professionals
Undeterred by these circumstances, a group of dedicated Yemeni doctors found a way to sidestep this distance barrier and get professional medical advice to those in need. In a first-of-its-kind initiative in Yemen, the doctors developed a free online application that gives would-be patients access to a network of Yemeni doctors wherever they are in the world. The app, called “My Doctor,” (Tabeebi in Arabic), allows patients to receive free counselling services from a qualified doctor.
How it works
The My Doctor app, which can be downloaded on Android smartphones here, pairs patients with doctors who have volunteered to participate. The doctors are available to provide patients with information on their health issues, suggest the most preferable options for treatment and prevention, and potentially support the patient by referring them to a doctor to see in person inside Yemen.
The creators of the app describe it as a “portable medical companion, through which the user can obtain accurate information and explanations at any time,” and say that it is primarily aimed at those who have to travel long distances in order to receive medical assistance in person. The app is characterized as a medical advisory service, and the doctors behind the app say it is not a substitute for an in-person doctor or hospital visit. The ‘digital doctors’ volunteering through the app are not permitted to make any formal medical diagnosis, treatment, or write prescriptions.
To date, the app has amassed a list of volunteer doctors specializing in over 50 specialties, with the possibility of adding more, enabling a wide array of injured and ill Yemenis to be paired with physicians with the most suitable background and experience to match their specific needs. Through the app, the doctors are able to provide advice, reports, examinations, tests and can give a full audio explanation of the situation.
The core team behind My Doctor has a procedure for approving new doctors to use the app as volunteers, as well as for organizing the new doctors according to the various medical specialties included in the application. Prospective volunteers are required to register information about themselves, including by uploading copies of their medical certificates and related documentation and state their work experience. From there, a special committee examines the files and issues an approval or rejection, ensuring that only qualified and responsible doctors are giving medical advice through the app.
The idea behind the app
My Doctor was conceptualized by Dr. Marwan Al-Ghafory, a Yemeni cardiologist based in Germany, who oversees the team of volunteer doctors running the app. Al-Ghafory explained to Almasdar Online that he was motivated to create My Doctor due to his own experiences with illness. Although Al-Ghafory is a doctor himself and has private medical insurance, he said sometimes he was forced to wait about four weeks to talk to a specialist for just a 10-minute meeting.
After reading a report by Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper six years ago that indicated Yemen was in dire need of 40,000 doctors, Al-Ghafory asked himself how he could help. “And now after the outset of war, the diaspora and the emigration of doctors, the tragedy seems to be even more exasperating,” he said.
Mohammed Al-Nuaimi, one of the software developers behind the app, told Almasdar Online that the team operating My Doctor consists of six core volunteers. A three-member technical team follows up on cases and provides technical support to patients and doctors, while managing educational content on social media.
In Al-Nuaimi’s view, the idea of My Doctor is to spread medical knowledge and communicate it to a wide audience. In addition to the one-on-one advice provided through the app, he said that through social media My Doctor “also serves as a medical forum in which we publish studies and every two days we address a different disease and publish information about it.”
The volunteer doctors “are comprehensively aware of the health situation in their country and are able to refer their patients to the right places and even communicate with the therapists on the ground,” Dr. Al-Ghafory said, stressing that this feature is not available in cross-border medical applications.
My Doctor was originally launched at the beginning of 2019 for a six-month trial period, during which time the team made observations, received feedback, and incorporated the necessary modifications in order for the idea to be technically and scientifically sound, Dr. Al-Ghafory said.
The application is unprecedented in Yemen, and perhaps one of the first services of its kind to be offered free of charge in the Middle East. It also gives Yemeni doctors the ability to give back to their war-torn country by helping those in need.
Reception and development
My Doctor has now been downloaded from the app store about 22,300 times, according to one of the team members, who said the number of requests for medical consultations via the app has steadily increased, demonstrating a huge amount of interest from the general population in using the service.
The app received positive evaluations from the majority of those who responded to the evaluation request in app stores, although its development is still ongoing. More Yemeni doctors continue to sign up to volunteer their time and expertise through what some have described as an “online hospital.”
During the implementation phase, and partly due to the sheer popularity of My Doctor, a few challenges emerged. For example, some of the volunteer doctors who joined the team became inactive and did not maintain their initial enthusiasm, which, Dr. Al-Ghafory said, caused the service to be disrupted. This prompted the app's administrators to replace doctors who were inactive or registering minimal engagement on the app with those who demonstrated stronger interest in volunteering their time to provide medical advice.
“We receive daily updates and data about the application,” Al-Ghafory said. “There are doctor performance assessment boxes open to users, and (we have received) feedback that there are some important specialties not sufficiently covered by existing doctors.”
As for Yemen’s notoriously poor electricity grid and internet, Al-Ghafory said he does not think this presents a major obstacle, “especially since Yemenis use hundreds of applications on a daily basis.” Indeed, Yemenis have found a number of ways to get online despite frequent power outages, especially through the use of small solar-powered chargers.
The development process is still ongoing, and the app creators are working on accommodating more feedback through additional services and modifications.
“This application is the only thing that connects every doctor to the homeland and does not cost anything; it is purely voluntary work,” Dr. Naguib Al-Dahbali, a neurologist who volunteers with My Doctor, told Almasdar Online. “Through this application, it is possible to build a clear picture of what our society needs,” he said, explaining that My Doctor has given him a clearer picture of the plethora of challenges facing ordinary citizens across the country, and the things that should be prioritized in order to benefit communities.
Al-Dahbali was one of the first doctors to sign up to use the app, having registered in March 2019. “Volunteer work has an impact for the person who works in this field and a feeling of happiness when it comes to advice or an idea that can help a person and make their life happy,” he said.
Al-Dahbali encouraged other doctors to register with the app and lend a hand to Yemenis in need. “Volunteer work pushes you to live a life that others live, and to live new experiences that no one else has tried,” he added.
Editing by Casey Coombs