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Social distance transforms doctors

The COVID-19 crisis has quickly transformed healthcare, particularly in how doctors see patients, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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A doctor friend recently came into contact with a patient who had been exposed to a family member who had contracted coronavirus. In line with protocols his clinic had adopted in addressing the COVID-19 crisis, he had to be tested himself and then self-isolate for 14 days.

While he waited for the test results, he set up his practice at home, and moved all appointments from physical to telephonic and video-conferenced consultations. And a remarkable thing happened: he was able to see far more patients in far less time. No less than 50 consultations were completed in the first few days.

This is a scenario that is playing itself out across the world.

A week before the lockdown began in South Africa, Discovery Health announced that it was expanding access to its online doctor consultation platform, DrConnect. It invited members who thought they were ill or thought they may have symptoms to do virtual consultations with their doctors.

The benefit was obvious, said the medical insurance provider: “This will prevent medical facilities from becoming overcrowded with people, possibly spreading infection to others.”

To avoid members rushing to use the facility, it required them to visit a COVID-19 hub and answer a series of “risk assessment questions” to determine if they needed to have a virtual consultation. If your own doctor is not available, a dedicated COVID-19 Care Team of doctors is on standby, and the patients are guided through a few steps to book the virtual consultation.

Last week, the service went a step further: Vodacom partnered with Discovery to offer the benefit to all South Africans during the pandemic.

“Globally, telemedicine has proved invaluable in the management of this disease, 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,” said Vodacom in a statement. “The COVID-19 risk assessment and virtual healthcare tools can help to identify people who need health professional engagement and a potential referral for testing or to a hospital.”

The service also helps to bridge the digital divide between the privileged who have the tools and data for videoconferencing and the less privileged who can barely afford data on their smartphones. The online healthcare platform is available on any web or mobile phone, and allows for a full consultation with a doctor through video or audio calls, or by text.

Vodacom and Discovery have also jointly created a fund to pay doctors for approximately 100 000 consultations, making them free to any South African.

“Our partnership with Discovery can go a long way in alleviating any increased pressure on healthcare practitioners while at the same time empowering citizens by connecting them to doctors,” says Vodacom group CEO Shameel Joosub. “As a leading technology company, we are optimistic about the capabilities of digital connectivity to transform the lives of our communities. Through the online doctor consultation platform, anyone looking for COVID-19 related information will be connected to a network of doctors who will be readily available to answer their questions.”

Adrian Gore, CEO of Discovery Group, says the initiative is in line with the company’s core purpose: making people healthier.

“In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that purpose is very simple – we need to keep South Africans out of harm’s way,” he says. “We are very hopeful that this initiative will make a huge impact on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa – for the good of all our citizens.”

It is no only ordinary individuals but doctors, too, who have to climb the steep learning curve towards the new world and ways of healthcare.

My own general practitioner has resisted new technology for years. Now, his smartphone has become a lifeline for his patients, and a tool to protect himself as far as it is practical.

Doctors have also been invited to download the Discovery HealthID and DrConnect apps to join the virtual healthcare platform. Those who are behind the technology curve receive guidance on how to consult, as well as how to receive payment from a dedicated fund that Discovery and Vodacom have set up for these specific consultations. A total of 10,000 free consultations are initially being provided as part of the service.

This service, and similar ones globally, will mark a watershed in the history of telemedicine, defined by the US Health Resources and Services Administration as “distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies”.

It is not a new concept in South Africa. As far back as 2008, Cape Town social entrepreneur Marlon Parker founded an organisation called RLabs – for Reconstructed Living Labs – in a marginalised community known as Bridgetown. The initial purpose was to counsel drug addicts, and its primary tool was the now-defunct instant messaging tool Mxit.

The service expanded into Mxit Reach, which create free mobile educational, health care, agricultural and community resources. While Mxit is gone, RLabs still focuses on skills training and economic empowerment opportunities.

It showed how even the most basis cellphone could be roped in to change people’s lives, at a distance. More than a decade later, the entire health industry is waking up to the need and the benefit of such approaches.

Visit the next page to read about how to get an online doctor’s appointment.

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