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As access to shelters and in-person counselling was restricted, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Pacific office and its partners sought virtual solutions, such as increasing tele-counselling services to the women and girls who faced reduced access to health services during this pandemic.

Given the disruption in health services across the country due to COVID-19, resulting in the cessation of routine services in the major hospitals and the difficulty in accessing health facilities, the use of telehealth-mediated services emerged as a much-needed mechanism for reaching out to women and girls for maternity care and sexual reproductive health services.

UNFPA Pacific through its COVID-19 Global Response supported by the Australian Government and in partnership with Ministry of Health and Medical Services – Fiji (MHMS), rolled out a 12-month telehealth initiative.

The twelve-month UNFPA Pacific’s Telehealth Covid-19 Response Project (July 2020 to July 2021), under Global COVID-19 Response was designed to support the delivery of integrated sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV) services, and mental health and psycho-social support (MHPSS) services in the Pacific, in response to the impact of Covid-19 pandemic. It was really meant to ensure the continuity of SRH and GBV services using alternative service delivery models.

And this is just one of the ways that UNFPA Pacific is making sure that no one is left behind during this pandemic when it comes to sexual and reproductive health.

“The telehealth initiative has enabled women, especially those who are pregnant or have difficulty coming to the health centres, to have consultations with the midwives on phone, without the need to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr Jennifer Butler, UNFPA Pacific Director and Representative.

The problems of gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual violence have increased as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, fuelled by socio-economic hardships, breakdown of law and order, displaced communities, and increasing poverty.

Chandra Kanta, one of the twenty (20) Fijian midwives who have been deployed by UNFPA Pacific to support the continuity of maternity care and family planning services.

She believes that the aim of telehealth during this pandemic is to minimize the impact of patient surges at the antenatal clinic, reduce staff exposure to ill patients and increase social distancing.

According to the weekly data, there are approximately 160 to 180 patients per week who access the telehealth services. These are pregnant women, adolescents, and also some women who had given birth and some who have suffered miscarriages as well.

The staff of maternity units and the deployed midwives started to use mobile phones to facilitate telehealth consultations, initiate referrals, provide counselling and follow up patients at home.

“With telehealth, women feel empowered to make decisions regarding their health and seek attention earlier. Being assured that they can call any time of the day or night puts them at ease and the freedom to relate to the pandemic especially if some had gone into quarantine or home isolation,” said Kanta.

Telehealth is a powerful tool as it enhances communication and correspondence between pregnant women and health care workers.

Pregnant women can receive care, advice, and support at home without entering the medical facilities, minimizing the risk of contracting the virus.  It is a new thing and for it to be effective, the availability of technology, as in accessing a working phone is important as a communication tool.

Women feel free to talk to the healthcare worker from the comfort of their own homes and have a lot of time unlike when they are physically present and are being rushed.

Chandra stresses that it allows the patients to ask questions about anything affecting them. “Many women have shared that they look forward to the calls from us as they felt bonded and cared for.  Some have even asked for our mobile number which we have given gladly” Chandra added.

To enhance telehealth operations, UNFPA Pacific supported teleconference facilities, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) equipment, and smartphones for the maternity units in the Colonial War Memorial (CWM) Hospital and the Nadi Hospital.

“Mobile phones were given by UNFPA Pacific to the CWM maternity Consultant Obstetrician, Deputy Director of Nurse Maternity and one to the telehealth staff, Also, the use of landlines remains as there are a lot of patients to reach out to,” said Chandra.

Telehealth is making a positive contribution to healthcare during the pandemic.  It is an effective and sustainable solution precaution, prevention, and treatment to stem the spread of COVID-19.