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SA turns to telemedicine during COVID-19 lockdown

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 03 Apr 2020

Amid the scourge of COVID-19, a new revolution is set to change SA’s healthcare, one driven by mobile technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies.

Industry experts say the digitisation of healthcare is a reality and is streamlining things like dispensing medication, patient intake, record sharing, patient tracking and treatment.

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

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

This, Webber Wentzel says, is a totally compliant lockdown solution which has recently been given a limited stamp of approval by the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

Telemedicine is defined as the delivery of healthcare and the transfer of health information across distances using information and communication technologies such as e-mail, telephone calls, video links and social networks.

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

Webber Wentzel notes that although telemedicine technologies may be useful in these uncertain times, “there are, however, limits as to what kinds of healthcare services may sensibly be provided in this way – there are also important ethical and legal considerations to be aware of”.

As COVID-19 escalates, more technologically-driven healthcare solutions are preferred and many companies are bringing out different solutions to help ease the situation, the law firm says.

On Wednesday, Vodacom and Discovery announced a partnership to deliver what they call “a simple but powerful online healthcare platform for the benefit of all South Africans during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

According to the companies, “this platform provides easy access for all South Africans to a COVID-19 risk tool, to help understand your personal risk for COVID-19 plus, where needed, to immediately schedule virtual healthcare professional consultations and get advice”.

Similarly, earlier this week, Right ePharmacy announced that with lockdown in full force, patients in and around Johannesburg and Bloemfontein can now collect their monthly medicines from extremely advanced “ATM pharmacies”.

According to the company, these ATM pharmacies are chronic medicine collection points which robotically dispense medication.

It notes the machines are accurate “so patients who depend on the public healthcare systems don’t have to wait in long queues at their local clinic every month, potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 when collecting repeat medication”.

Fanie Hendriksz, MD of Right ePharmacy, says: “We have seen a steep increase in patient numbers at our ATM pharmacies over the last couple of weeks and we have geared up for the increase. We’ve stepped up our hygiene practices with sanitiser available and ask patients to observe one metre social distance between each other so we all work together to ‘flatten the curve’.

“Telemedicine is really coming into its own at the moment. Pharmacists servicing patients remotely at the ATM pharmacies are based in Centurion and appear on screen to service and assist patients whether they are in Soweto, Diepsloot, Alexandra or Bloemfontein.”

Consultation caution

Telemedicine, however, comes with its own limitations, cautions Webber Wentzel.

The firm says some healthcare practitioners will face real challenges in consulting electronically, like anaesthesiologists and surgeons.

“Many other healthcare practitioners may easily establish telemedicine practices like general practitioners, dieticians, nutritionists, biokineticists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, audiologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, to name a few.

“Radiologists and pathologists may also have success in telemedicine. Also, arguably, any follow-up discussion or telephone call by a medical practitioner to their patient can be deemed a form of telemedicine.”

According to Webber Wentzel, there are “inherent limitations in conducting telemedicine consultations – a treating practitioner may not be able to obtain a full clinical picture from a remote viewpoint, which could lead to incorrect prescriptions being made, symptoms being missed and possibly an incorrect diagnosis. These are real concerns.”