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SA health experts amend telemedicine guidelines amid COVID-19

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 07 Apr 2020

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) has cautioned its members that ethical rules of conduct are still applicable during the practise of telehealth.

Amid the scourge of COVID-19, many patients have now turned to telehealth, which is also referred to as telemedicine, as they limit their face-to-face interactions with healthcare providers.

Yesterday, the HPCSA issued a notice to amend telemedicine guidelines during COVID-19, saying after consultation with the 12 professional boards under the ambit of the HPCSA, the organisations agreed to amend some of the rules for the duration of the lockdown.

The umbrella body for healthcare professionals had, on 26 March, published guidance to practitioners on the application of the telemedicine guidelines – as contained in its booklet of the guidelines for good practice in the healthcare professions – to assist with the disruption of the transmission of COVID-19.

In a statement yesterday, HPCSA said: “The following provisions are hereby amended: clause (b) of the guidance on the application of telemedicine guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic which stated:

“Telehealth is only permissible in circumstances where there is an already established practitioner-patient relationship, except where telepsychology and/or telepsychiatry is involved, in which case telehealth is permissible even without an established practitioner-patient relationship.”

It said further the clause had been amended: “Telehealth should preferably be practised in circumstances where there is an already established practitioner-patient relationship. Where such a relationship does not exist, practitioners may still consult using telehealth provided that such consultations are done in the best clinical interest of patients.”

Another amendment was effected on clause (c) which stated: “Practitioners may charge a fee for services rendered through a telehealth platform.”

It has now been amended to: “Although practitioners may charge fees for consultations undertaken through telehealth platforms, the council strongly cautions against practices that may amount to over-servicing, perverse incentives and supersession.”

SA has seen a surge in patients opting for telemedicine in recent weeks as COVID-19 escalates.

Last week, industry experts told ITWeb that the digitisation of healthcare is a reality and one that is streamlining things like dispensing of medication, patient intake, record sharing, patient tracking and treatment.

Law firm Webber Wentzel said technology in healthcare is already assisting patients who may have been affected by the COVID-19 lockdown.

The firm said patients are getting some reprieve through telemedicine, which allows them to consult with healthcare practitioners without either patient or provider travelling or leaving their homes.

This, Webber Wentzel said, was a totally compliant lockdown solution which has recently been given a limited stamp of approval by the HPCSA.

Globally, telemedicine has proved invaluable in the management of the deadly virus, with many governments and healthcare systems advocating for digital healthcare tools and virtual consults to be the first step and primary means of healthcare support during the COVID-19 outbreak.