Telehealth – where patients consult their doctors virtually – has become a prominent trend in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.It essentially involves consulting with your medical practitioner virtually and receiving a prescription if needed after the consultation.

According to a study, the COVID-19 pandemic has made telehealth the primary means through which patients interact with their health providers. However, there is a concern that the pandemic will exacerbate the existing disparities in overall healthcare utilisation and telehealth utilisation.

“More than a 20-fold increase in the incidence of telemedicine utilisation after 13 March 2020 was observed. Conversely, the incidence of office-based encounters declined by almost 50% and was not fully offset by the increase in telemedicine. The increase in telemedicine was greatest among patients in counties with low poverty levels, among patients in metropolitan areas, and more among adults than children aged 0-12 years.”

Support for telehealth

Christopher Tsatswane, Head of Division: Corporate Affairs for the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), says the HPCSA has always supported telehealth in line with the Department of Health’s policy as it is an appropriate, effective, cost-effective and safe way to consult with patients. Telehealth also limits mobility, as required by the current COVID-19 restrictions.

“COVID-19 has undoubtedly increased the rate of virtual consultations. This will in future not be the only way for doctors to consult with their patients, but definitely one of the platforms through which doctors will consult with their patients.  Practitioners, as well as patients, are adjusting to this new way of interaction for healthcare.”

Experiences with virtual consultations

Tsatswane says virtual consultations are an effective means for practitioners to consult with patients in circumstances where physical contact is not possible. “However, due to some limitations, practitioners may have to conduct physical consultations if the condition of a patient requires such a service.”

Thembelihle Ngobese, from Amanzimtoti, who had urinary tract infection (UTI), consulted with Dr Fourie through a virtual doctor website and said the experience was very convenient for her. “It was absolutely beneficial. Few days later, no more UTI. I feel like all doctors should at least be willing to offer this if their patient asks.”

Ngobese said the Pretoria-based doctor didn’t really have to diagnose me. “I already knew what was wrong, so he just confirmed the symptoms I was experiencing and prescribed me the necessary antibiotics and probiotics.”

Tsholofelo Mophosho, who is based in Soweto, has consulted with both her psychologist and psychiatrist virtually. “I consulted with my psychiatrist last year during hard lockdown via WhatsApp video call because she wanted to see the body language of her clients, so that she can pick to what you say as a patient and how you react to things.

“I also consulted with my psychologist, located in Florida, was session lasting about 40 minutes on Zoom. She also wants to see my body language and from that consultation she could pick up that I was not okay based on what I was saying and my body language,” said Mophosho.

Telehealth and Post COVID-19

Ngobese hopes that virtual consultations with doctors continue even after COVID-19, while Mophosho feels tired and can’t wait for life to get back to normal again.

“This year it’s different. I miss sitting on the coach and speaking to my psychologist. I miss people’s presence because I feel like we are over virtually-consulted. From virtual meetings at work to online family meetings. All of that is draining me emotionally. I am tired, I want to meet people. It was fun in the beginning, but there is now a level of anxiety,” explained Mophosho.

“I hope they continue! This really was so convenient for me. It’s always hard for me to go see a doctor for my own ailments because it means taking along two very clingy kids. But the call was easy and from there he emailed my prescription directly to my nearest pharmacy, as it is not allowed to be send to me directly, which can be a bit of a hassle.

“I’ve asked my normal doctor to assist me in this virtual way and she just doesn’t want to. She wants me to physically come in,” says Ngobese.

According to Tsatswane, telehealth was available prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but not used as widely. “There is a general acceptance that telehealth will become a prominent feature in healthcare delivery prospectively. However, there should be protections put in place to ensure that the interests of patients, including positive clinical outcomes from treatment and care through telehealth are not undermined.” – Health-e News