New tech, telemedicine anchor diabetes management in SA

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Amid the scourge of COVID-19, diabetes management in South Africa has gone digital, with patients being monitored via virtual calls, WhatsApp and mobile apps.

This is according to healthcare company Abbott, which hosted a virtual media roundtable yesterday, with medical experts and diabetes activists, to launch a report titled “Enabling Telemedicine for People Living with Diabetes: Focus on South Africa”.

The American Diabetes Association notes that people with diabetes are more likely to have serious complications from COVID-19. In general, it adds, people with diabetes are more likely to have more severe symptoms and complications when infected with any virus.

The report shows the roles new technologies and telemedicine are playing in diabetes management in SA.

It notes the rapid shift towards telemedicine is attributed to the direct impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent restrictions, which limited in-person interactions in hospitals and clinics, to limit the spread of transmissions.

This, it says, increased digital literacy, with a high technology adoption rate, and more patients are being monitored via virtual calls, WhatsApp and mobile apps.

The report comes as SA’s healthcare is evolving, driven by mobile technology, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.

The digitisation of local healthcare is streamlining things like dispensing of medication, patient intake, record sharing, patient tracking and treatment.

Similarly, the Abbott report says, doctors are starting to see the use of innovations in diabetes care, which can complement telemedicine services, such as smart glucose monitors that have made continuous glucose monitoring available to people living with diabetes.

The devices collect data on glucose levels, per the consent of the user, and share this information with healthcare professionals in real-time.

Professor David Segal, paediatric endocrinologist, says: “Telemedicine offers solutions to deliver healthcare services at scale, at the right time and at any location. Especially in this time of the pandemic, we need to use technology to create ‘healthcare with no address’.

“We cannot build enough hospitals, or spend enough money, to treat everyone with legacy hospital-based systems of care. The mobile phone is a disruptive technology, and that is where the hospital will move to. Telemedicine can take healthcare to the people rather than the other way around. It has potential to improve outcomes, reduce costs, increase convenience and customer satisfaction.”

Dr Bruno Pauly, from the Department of Diabetes and Endocrinology at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, says: “Telemedicine, digitalisation and technology as a whole have huge potential to improve the care of people living with diabetes. The first steps to utilising telemedicine in the private sector have been made, but huge obstacles remain in building upon that and expanding use, particularly in the public sector.”

Co-founder of the NGO Sweet Life Diabetes Community, Bridget McNulty, who took part in yesterday’s discussion, says: “Not only will electronic patient records enable patient outcomes to be better tracked to improve care, they are also likely to help engage nurses in primary care, as they will be able to see patient improvements from their direct interventions.”

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