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SIDE STORY I: Teleconferencing Within UCMB: A sustainable means of knowledge and skills sharing within the Catholic Health Network PDF Print E-mail

By Ntacyo D. Jenard, UCMB.

In April 2012, Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau (UCMB) acquired a teleconferencing license from Blackboard Collaborate with the Support of CORDAID and IICD enabling Health Facilities within the network use Blackboard Collaborate platform for teleconferencing.

According to an online dictionary merriam-webster.com, Teleconferencing is the holding of a conference among people remote from one another by means of telecommunication devices (as telephones or computer terminals). UCMB therefore envisaged teleconferencing as the easy way to have sustainable means of continuous capacity development through knowledge and skills sharing in the network as well as ease the coordination of these Health Facilities in the UCMB network.


UCMB staff simulating usage in low bandwidth areas in Jinja

It’s important to note that effective use of ICT’s such as telephones, computers, internet, radios and TV’s to mention a few can alleviate existing communication challenges and create efficiency in organizations. Undoubtedly any institution that ignores the use of modern technology to improve communication will lag behind in many aspects and eventually affect other dependent institutions.

An institution like Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau (UCMB) which is Health technical arm of the Uganda Episcopal Conference (UEC) and mandated by the same Conference to oversee the health services in 283 Catholic founded Health Facilities, distributed all over Uganda requires effective means of communication.

These Health Facilities are composed of 32 Hospitals, 14 health training schools (HTI), 250 Lower Lever Units (LLU) coordinated through 19 Diocesan Health Offices (DHO).
There is constant interaction between UCMB, DHCs, Health facilities and HTIs. This occurs in form of consultative meetings, peer group support and reviews, Trainings and Technical Workshops. This is very costly in terms of time and money because workers at these facilities require transport to the meeting venues, per diem in addition to cost of hiring professional facilitators.

So far, teleconferencing is being used for webinars, Continuous Medical Education (CME), Peer review meetings, consultative meetings. It’s also hoped that the content generated over a period of time during CME’s will be used to improve e-learning system in the network and Uganda at large.
Effective use of teleconferencing will greatly reduce the overall cost the above mentioned activities without affecting the outcome of the meeting.  Conversely more can be achieved at the same cost by involving more participants and creating more opportunities in terms of subjects that may be covered during Continuing Education which may be on clinical, management, governance, finance, etc.

Medical staff within the network are already exploring  means by which they can use the platform to improve their services through sharing expert Medical personnel for instance if one facility has an expert Radiologist and other facility is lacking the expertise, they will scan and send medical images for interpretation and then discuss the results in real time. The consulting facility will contribute to the cost of expert which is generally cheaper than hiring a full-time expert who may not be fully utilized.

What is Black Board Collaborate?
Blackboard Collaborate (bb Collaborate) is an online collaboration platform providing web conferencing, mobile collaboration, instant messaging, video and voice authoring.
Bb Collaborate Communications Framework ensures that all learners are in sync, regardless of computer platform or Internet connection speed. The platform is designed to ensure a “No User Left Behind technology” which means that ALL learners, even those with disabilities, get a richer, more interactive learning experience (bb website).

How to use bb Collaborate platform for teleconferencing
The platform is designed to be an “easy to use” tool given the mix of skills and professions of different users. Once you have Java Run Time environment installed on your computer, then you are able to use the system in three steps:

  1. Login to online system using any browser
  2. Save and run small Java application (named meeting.jnlp) as prompted
  3. Set connection speed as prompted or leave default and you are done!
Of course the Computer must be connected to internet and you must have audio input/output devices (Microphone /Speakers) and a camera.

Diocesan Health Coordinator receiving teleconferencing equipment

The platform allows creation of virtual conference rooms/offices and UCMB can have as many as 100 rooms (sessions). Each room/session can have more than 20 participants from different locations and each location can have more than one person participating. All that is needed is equipment that can enable many people in the same room view, hear and even contribute. UCMB took a simple approach of using simple sub woofer system that has connection points for microphone and in/out pins to the computer and simple camera of about 5 megapixels with pan and tilt capability.

Considering the internet challenges in Uganda, UCMB had to carry out a number of experiments to establish data load and speeds in poor network areas and also tested other web based teleconferencing tools like Netify CISCO-Polycom Solution, Adobe connect and Bluebutton and the results favored Bb Collaborate. For instance it’s designed to work on internet Connection speed of as low as 28kbps; during remote tests people were able to comfortably talk and use whiteboard. Video was practically impossible in such conditions.
Data usage was comparable to normal internet browsing and slightly more when video was switched on. After as series of experiments, it was found that average data use for 60minutes was 5.17 MB at speed of 1.47Kbps upstream and 5.84MB at speed of 1.66 Kbps downstream. If the average cost of 1MB of data is UShs. 50 and conference for 60minutes and you use 6MB, it means that the one hour cost UShs. 300/= which is quite low considering the benefits of the meeting.
Note that the computers used were checked for hidden processes that tend to be greedy for connection or scanning for updates from the internet.
Bb Collaborate has range of good features and these include:

  • File transfer to all members during sessions
  • Interactive White board and participation controls like raise hand, breakout sessions, laugh, instant messaging, Application sharing, web tour.
  • Mobile collaboration
  • Interactive session recording for offline play back/viewing and its stored in multiple formats (AVI, VOB, MP4, MP3, JAR, TEXT)
  • Bb collaborate is platform independent- web based and supported by multiple browsers
  • Easy to use interface

Like all other systems, the success is not primarily depended on the design but rather the intended users. The users from the network are yet to maximally make use of the system but more guidance and support is still required.

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