Telemedicine in South Africa: Benefits and Challenges

By Mvusi Ngubane    07-Dec-2018 18:22 UTC+02:00

Telemedicine is relatively new, yet its practice sees rapid growth. It might sound like science-fiction, but advances in medical care have taken away the need for people to leave their homes in order to get medical attention. Businesses are innovating their services to cater to people’s medical needs without face-to-face interaction. Governments around the world are also feeling the pinch. Even South Africa is being forced to pull the idea to the mainstream or risk the anger of taxpayers, who expect nothing less than best medical care available.

What is telemedicine?

The definition of telemedicine remains open-ended. However, in general, it covers the act of treating patients remotely. In most cases this involves an internet connection, but it removes the need for the patient and the medical practitioner to be in the same place.

Why is telemedicine growing?

To begin with, medical care can be provided more efficiently through telemedicine. Consider health-care systems and software that have patient medical records on hand together with effective diagnosis features. Using applications of this kind, most ailments, their causes and required treatment can quickly be prescribed and attended to.

Healthcare institutions have good reason to adopt and promote telemedicine. It is reported that the practice puts less strain on the doctor-patient relationship due to the minimal interaction aspect that comes with it.

The need to employ more health-care practitioners like nurses and admin assistants diminishes too. This is because telemedicine reduces the need for humans to oversee the process of diagnosing, recording and filing patient data. The result sees hospitals, clinics and government healthcare facilities saving money that would otherwise be directed at salaries and human-related processing costs.

However, people are not getting the short end of the stick. Patients gain fast and effective access to medical care wherever they are. It has become clear that a lack of internet connectivity results in the exclusion of entire populations.

In South Africa, discussions of providing even the most rural areas with fast and reliable internet connections have come to the fore. This is due to benefits such as online education, research, better communication and telemedicine. The latter bridges the gap between people and their access to healthcare with a simple internet connection.

Telemedicine can benefit patients in need of counseling services

The adoption of telemedicine allows the elderly, sickly and disabled to remain in place and receive their medical care. This is done through remote diagnoses and the subsequent mail-order delivery of prescribed medicines and apparatus e.g. crutches, neck-braces, etc.

Also, telemedicine can be particularly useful to mental health patients who suffer from illnesses which typically do not need physical therapy e.g. depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc. Research shows that a variety of mental health disorders can be treated effectively through online counselling.

Other benefits for people include the dismissal of transportation costs that relate to trips to the doctor. There is no need to miss work in order to sit in a waiting room for half the day either. It is reported that healthcare industries will be able to extend their cost saving to consumers as well. The costs that are saved by hospitals can be used to reduce the treatment prices across the healthcare industry.

Challenges and considerations

In South Africa, telemedicine is being put under a spotlight as taxpayers demand the government to stay abreast with the latest medical innovations. While this might seem exciting, there are many barriers standing in the way of the widespread access to telemedicine. Connectivity is among these as well as the unemployment aspect. It’s clear that telemedicine systems stand to do away with the need for human labour.

South Africa has to deeply consider the regulation of online services of this kind. Although convenient at face value, detriments like the misuse and privacy of patient medical records will need to be addressed. Enter the policy-making and industry lobbying aspect of telemedicine in the country.

Lobbying alone might result in only a selected few healthcare companies and organisations being allowed to offer telemedicine services. This would be based on how trusted the organisations are, their ability to meet set requirements and ability to give people access to the benefits of telemedicine.

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