Doctors go digital

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Marc Knowles, Ollie Health.
Marc Knowles, Ollie Health.

In February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a national public health institute in the US, advised that members of the public and healthcare providers living in areas affected by the coronavirus adopt strict social distancing practices. The CDC specifically recommended that healthcare facilities and providers offer clinical services via alternative means.

The IoB and healthcare

Gartner listed the Internet of Behaviour (IoB) as one of the strategic trends to watch in 2020. The research and advisory firm predicts that, by 2023, the individual activities of 40% of the global population – around three billion people – will be tracked digitally in order to influence our behaviour. From a healthcare perspective, this trend could materialise in the form of a smartphone app that tracks everything from your diet and sleep patterns to your heart rate and blood sugar levels. This sort of thing may already be available via Discovery or Fitbit, but advanced IoB will take it to a whole new level of personal care devices that offer continuous monitoring of key health markers.

This IoB app will detect any issues or anomalies and then suggest behaviour modifications with the aim to achieve a desired outcome, like weight loss, for example. But experts fear that integrating behavioural data with the Internet of Things (IoT) could be quite dangerous should it fall into the wrong hands. IoB data could be used to take phishing scams to a whole new level by enabling hackers to impersonate individuals for nefarious purposes.

In South Africa, similar advice meant that medical insurers like Discovery saw far fewer claims during 2020 as South Africans opted to avoid hospitals and doctors’ rooms and defer elective procedures in an attempt to make way for Covid-19-related hospitalisations. So where have people been getting their medical care and advice?

From virtual healthcare booking apps and tele-healthcare providers like Ollie Health and Udok.

Just a few months old, Ollie Health is SA’s new kid on the health tech block. Local entrepreneurs Marc Knowles and Andrei Casim founded the startup when Knowles got seriously ill shortly after returning from a stint in Canada. At the time, it was lockdown Level 3 and the 20-something didn’t have medical aid and wasn’t sure where to find a doctor or how to book an appointment. “If anything, my experience proved to me that the process of booking a doctor was way too complicated. And I wanted to do something about it,” Knowles says. “One in 10 South Africans lacks access to affordable and reliable healthcare. I truly believe that South Africans need a better, simpler way to connect with a doctor.”

Online health

The pair were further driven to create Ollie Health after realising that many healthcare practitioners were looking for alternatives to in-person consultations, but were struggling to find an effective, streamlined way to connect with their patients. “Many healthcare practitioners have seen their bookings drop by as much as 40% and so many of them were struggling to find new ways to safely engage and interact with their patients. We knew that there was a massive opportunity in creating a platform that offered a great tele-health experience.” So, says Knowles, they created Ollie, an app that makes it possible to book free, virtual doctor’s appointments. It took them several months, clocking many 18-hour days and drinking copious amounts of coffee to get the startup off the ground. “Using only a mobile device and data, we can connect patients in the most remote locations with healthcare providers from across the country.”

One in 10 South Africans doesn’t have access to proper, affordable and reliable healthcare.

When Dr Petrus van Niekerk, founder and CEO of Udok, started his business back in 2018, the idea was to deliver doctors’ services to clinics where only nurses were available. But when Covid-19 hit, he knew that Udok needed to pivot its offering and go directly to the consumer. I did so via a mobile app. In the US or Canada, they’ve been doing this kind of thing for a while, says Van Niekerk, but there weren’t a lot of offerings that seamlessly link patients with doctors available within the local market.

Always-on healthcare

Knowles believes that this kind of healthcare experience is set to totally transform how we interact with medical professionals and will see these doctors and specialists running their practices differently in the future. Tele-health really does open up new business models for doctors, allowing them to treat patients from around the country and giving them the freedom to consult with patients via short video calls at times that are most convenient to them, he notes. If, for example, a doctor is able or willing to consult after hours, a platform like Ollie gives them the freedom to do so and will connect them with patients who are seeking care when traditional facilities would otherwise be closed.

With the current model, a doctor only gets a snapshot of the patient’s condition via a 10- or 15-minute appointment.

“During the pandemic, it’s been all about allowing doctors to safely consult with patients, but in the long term, the hope is that an app like Ollie will make healthcare more accessible and affordable for patients. It will also open up so many opportunities for doctors to tailor their services based on their personal preferences and on their patients’ needs,” notes Knowles. What many people don’t realise is that when a doctor completes his or her qualification, they need to come up with a lot of money to start their own practice or they can join a larger, more established practice and pay a monthly fee. Tele-health solutions eliminate the need to start a formal practice from the get-go by making customer acquisition easier, he adds.

But am I covered?

One nifty feature available on Ollie Health is the ability to filter doctors based on your medical aid coverage. Often, patients can only visit a doctor that falls within a certain network based on their specific medical aid plan. When booking a doctor’s visit, you’ll only be able to view practitioners that fall under your medical aid plan, which eliminates the hassle of having to sift through a long list of doctors that aren’t covered under your package. While the app doesn’t offer any payments or claims functionality just yet, the Ollie team hopes to incorporate this in the future. 

In addition to this, integrating technology into healthcare means that patients can be monitored continuously, which provides medical professionals with a more holistic view of the patient, notes Van Niekerk.“With the current healthcare model, a doctor only gets a snapshot of the patient’s condition via a 10- or 15-minute appointment. But with access to more continuous data, doctors can make more informed decisions.”

The South African healthcare system is broken, confesses Knowles. Van Niekerk agrees. When it comes to healthcare in South Africa, it’s one or the other, private or public, with no merge between the two. But with the planned rollout of the National Health Insurance (NHI) in a few years’ time, that is set to change, Knowles believes. For government, now is the perfect time to leverage emerging technology to gather the data it needs to deliver better care, to enable preventative medicine and to develop a system that best serves everyone, from the CEO to the person on the street. 

Many healthcare practitioners are struggling to connect with their patients because they’ve seen their bookings drop by as much as 40%.

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