You don’t have to imagine a world where you no longer need to sit for hours in a crowded waiting room for your doctor’s consultation because it’s already entirely avoidable. Telemedicine – the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients – is available to you if you’ve got internet connectivity and gives you the ability to talk to your doctor over the phone or via platforms such as Skype, cutting out the time spent in waiting rooms and, in some cases, reducing costs too.
It makes sense that we are heading towards a future in which doctors and patients will be able to consult each other remotely because there are many reasons people find it difficult to see a doctor face to face. In South Africa, people living in rural areas may find it difficult to commute to a city to see a specialist, others elsewhere might work long hours and have to fight their way through traffic, making it hard to get to appointments on time.
The cost of medical treatment is escalating all the time and one of the many reasons for this is because doctors have to maintain their offices, pay staff and expensive insurance. Telemedicine could help cut costs as it would go a long way toward reducing admin fees. There are some telemedicine providers that already offer South Africans the ability to consult with medical experts at a reduced rate or even for free. Here we provide an overview of few:
24/7 Baby line
BabyLine is a paediatric telemedicine company that offers 24/7 telephonic advice and help for patients with babies and toddlers under the age of three. Using this service is free if you belong to medical scheme Bonitas. “The service will be available through Health24 on a subscription basis shortly. The annual subscription would equate to roughly the cost of one ER trip,” says Dr Iqbal Karbanee, founder of Paed IQ, BabyLine. In the meantime you can access the service via live Facebook chat with paediatricians through the Clicks BabyClub page on Fridays between 10am and 12pm or chat with a paediatrician on Wednesday from 4pm to 5pm on the BabyLine Facebook page – all for free.
This is a specialist telemedicine provider which coaches diabetes sufferers. Patients are often referred to this service through their medical schemes. Graham Rowe, CEO of Guidepost, refuses to outline the costs involved but highlights that this service provides a lot of care that would have cost patients more in time and money. It also provides preventative treatment in that it ensures that patients are taking their medication correctly, eating the right diet and doing enough exercise to manage their weight. “We focus on diabetes and people with ongoing dialysis. Diabetes costs medical schemes R13 billion a year. So that’s what’s driving our premiums up. That cost is mostly hospital cost and that is because the disease is not under control. So medical aids prefer to invest money in prevention,” he points out.
Hello Doctor is a mobile health solution that offers people direct and immediate access to doctors for health advice and information. Simply download the app on your phone and you can use it 24/7. It’s free if you are a member of any of Hello Doctor’s partners, including: Momentum Health medical aid, Metropolitan, Metropolitan Wellness, Medimed, Medici and OCSACare. It’s also available to you if you take out Momentum’s Myriad life insurance or sign up for Momentum’s FundsAtWork products. Unfortunately, this service is not yet open to the public. When City Press sent a WhatsApp message to the service it responded: “Unfortunately, at this stage, our retail channel is not yet up, but we are hoping to have it running soon.”
Medici is also a messaging app, which has partnered with Hello Doctor, and it enables users to communicate virtually with medical providers via text, call or video at any time. The average Medici consultation will cost R200 but each provider will set their own consultation rate so this could vary. Unlike other telemedicine companies, Medici allows you to consult with your own doctor. But if your own doctor is not available you can consult one from the Hello Doctor service.
“Having a health concern is frustrating as it is and Medici makes what is usually a very stressful and costly experience, easy and affordable,” says Clinton Phillips, founder and CEO of Medici.
Medigo supports individuals and organisations looking for leading medical providers around the world. The costs of consultations vary and are dependent on your location, condition and the physician being consulted. Through this platform you can request second opinions and schedule medical treatment abroad. It has a network of 900 hospitals in 36 countries and a dedicated 24/7 patient care team. Asking for a second opinion could save you money. According to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 2014, in up to 62% of cases a second medical opinion will yield a change in diagnosis, treatment or prognosis. “Second opinions are a useful tool in situations where patients are confronted with treatment recommendations, such as major surgical interventions, that will have a significant (health and financial) impact on their lives and it is not clear to the patient if there still might be alternative options,” says Medigo.
If you think telemedicine is right for you, check with your insurance provider and medical scheme to find out if they have partnered with any of the above platforms. Otherwise find out if your medical scheme, as in the case of Discovery, enables you to talk to your medical practitioner through a video call app or other virtual means.
Telemedicine is bound to change the way in which we will deal with our medical practitioners in the future. But for now it’s sadly not going to provide us with everything we need, mostly because of resistance and scepticism from regulators.
Back in 2013, the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) warned healthcare practitioners and the public not to make use of Hello Doctor “or any other act of unethical telemedicine”. The CEO and registrar of the HPCSA at the time, Dr Buyiswa Mjamba-Matshoba, raised concerns over “business models that clearly contravene the HPCSA’s ethical rules and discourage face-to-face consultations between the patient and practitioner”. So generally, telemedicine platforms will provide guidance or coaching but when it comes to a serious diagnosis that requires a physical examination, you’ll have to see your doctor face to face.