03/08/2017 12:19 BST | Updated 04/08/2017 06:26 BST

I Came To The UK As A Child Alone. Now I Am Saving Lives Miles Away Using Telemedicine


Being recognised as a founder of a pioneering live international telemedicine charity, Arian Teleheal, and the first doctor in the world to perform a live international telemedicine call using augmented reality, from the UK to Afghanistan, could be seen as illogical by any standard.

I have overcome almost insurmountable challenges to qualify as a doctor and then to specialise in radiology and to also work as a senior emergency medicine doctor in England. I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the Soviet-Afghan conflict. Aged five, my family fled to Pakistan, being attacked by Russian helicopter gunships as we crossed the mountains. I spent the next three years in a single room in a refugee camp with my family of 10, nearly dying several times after contracting TB, malaria and suffering from famine. Whilst being treated by my doctor, I developed my first vision: to become a doctor so that I could help my family members and other people around me who were suffering.

My family then returned to Kabul where I lived the rest of my childhood in civil war without much formal schooling. Days were spent sheltering in cellars hiding from daily rockets and bombs. Despite the unimaginable surroundings, I began reading science and maths books whilst my family moved from house to house to dodge the fighting. I began learning English by tuning the family radio into the World Service after my father had finished listening to Farsi programmes. My family were finally able to have me undertake the journey to safety in the UK in 1999.

I arrived in this country aged 15, on my own, knowing no-one, with $100 in my pocket, and speaking very limited English.

Living with other Afghan refugees in a London flat, I began studying English in the evening while working in shops during the day. I subsequently achieved five A grades at AS and A-levels and was accepted by four prestigious medical schools, including Cambridge University where I was not able to do my tie for the interview and was helped by another applicant's parent.

While studying, I worked as a cleaner, kitchen porter and salesperson to financially support myself, my large family in Afghanistan and my younger brother, who came to the UK in 2001 and is now a dentist. I graduated with honours in neuro-pharmacology science from Cambridge and then completed my clinical studies at Imperial College in London whilst doing a surgical training rotation at Harvard.

I kept making regular visits to Afghanistan to hold educational sessions, but also kept searching for answers on how to connect Afghanistan and other conflict zones with advanced western healthcare system. Many of my colleagues in the UK were keen to help but it was too dangerous to travel there.

waheed and wife

Then I had to think outside the box and I came across the telemedicine concept. The way international telemedicine largely exists is through email with static question and answer format, which would not support emergencies or live discussions. So, I created a new live model that uses email, text, voice and video calls on smartphones with no cost.

With support and advice from my senior colleagues in the NHS, I then went about resolving numerous challenges, at a national level in Afghanistan, as well as building a network of volunteer doctors. The scheme was allowed to be piloted at five major emergency hospitals in Afghanistan in 2015. The scheme was instantly successful, and is credited by the Afghan health authorities with saving dozens of lives and the local medics found the charity's work to be hugely supportive and educational.

Now, Arian Teleheal has a growing network of nearly 100 volunteers from Europe, Canada, America and Australia, covering all specialties and providing healthcare advice and education on a 24/7 basis with a response window of less than four hours in acute cases. It has now been rolled out to all emergency and intensive care departments in Afghanistan as well as to Independent Doctors Association in Aleppo, Northern Syria with planned expansion to African countries and unlimited potential to help millions globally.

Meanwhile, I will continue to push the boundaries to integrate new technologies into Arian Teleheal. I proved the near future-vision by being the first in the world to do an international telemedicine consultation using augmented reality, in which computer-generated visuals add to real-life images combining healthcare advice and education.

I will also be launching an international academy soon to educate, empower and inspire people all around the world.

In recognition of our work, I have been given the presidential award in Afghanistan, the Highly Commended Rising Star for leadership category in the National Health Service Journal awards, and named as the NHS England Innovation Fellow.

These achievements against incredible odds, are mainly due to a limitless vision combined with courage, focus and hard work. I have also been incredibly lucky to be given all these opportunities in the UK, especially by our amazing NHS, which I value more everyday as I compare it first-hand with other healthcare systems in the world. Our charity enables us to bring global learning and research to the NHS, especially from overseas systems, as well as interesting cases and data. I have always wanted to give back to the NHS on a massive scale.

Waheed's Wars: Saving Lives Across The World is on BBC iPlayer. Watch it here.