Telemedicine: The future of healthcare in MENA?
DUBAI | Jennifer Bell
Telemedicine solutions did not appear to be a priority for MENA hospitals and clinics prior to the pandemic. Some 12 months later, experts are saying remote options have been fast-tracked to facilitate medical services for millions of socially isolated people. According to the specialists, COVID-19 has thrust healthcare into a virtual landscape.
In the pre-pandemic days, service providers and recipients occasionally incorporated digital platforms in their routine daily activities, says Nabil Debouni, group medical director of VPS Healthcare.
"When the pandemic struck, healthcare providers were obliged to be at the forefront regardless of the risks involved. Furthermore, providing healthcare to non-COVID-19 patients was another challenge facing [them],” Debouni shares.
“With social distancing being enforced all over the world, the challenge was even greater. Patients were reluctant to seek medical advice because of the risk involved. This is when the urgent need came for digital healthcare,” he elaborates.
Debouni adds that the rapid change led to VPS partnering with Philips to implement digital healthcare across different platforms.
WHY WAS THE REGION SLOW TO ADOPT?
A VPS-Philips strategic white paper titled “Above and Beyond: Reshaping Healthcare after COVID-19” examines the importance of telemedicine in healthcare.
"Before the pandemic, a number of factors contributed to slow adoption of telemedicine, including a lack of digital infrastructure, business incentives, regulatory frameworks and policies, and usable affordable technology, not to mention the cybersecurity threats to the systems and data,” the report states.
“[Another] challenge is the lack of human touch; there is a lot to be said for the human touch in healing. How can we emulate touch without touching? How do we balance technology with empathy?”
COVID-19 eliminated such concerns.
The report states further:
"We are at a point in time now where there is no turning back from telehealth, that the seismic shift to telemedicine has taken place. It’s no longer an alternative; it is the ‘care of choice.’ Telemedicine is here to stay. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the sentinel moment for the expansion of telemedicine.”
The authors note there will still be a need and place for in-person ambulatory patient visits. However, brick-and-mortar clinics will also see increasing transformations, for example, touchless check-in, drone deliveries, social distancing restrictions and many other precautions.
"In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has become the defining global health crisis of our time and the greatest public health challenge we have faced since World War II,” according to this report.
Dr Jyoti Upadhyay, an internal medicine specialist at UAE's Aster Hospital, agrees that telemedicine "became the priority in 2020.”
"Before the current pandemic, telemedicine was not widely available, and most patients and doctors would be reluctant to change the conventional practice. COVID-19 has been the strongest influence in promoting digital interactions.”
Dr Upadhyay says that telemedicine has untold potential to transform the health landscape.
“For example, patients on regular maintenance for chronic diseases like blood pressure and diabetes can minimise physical visits to health institutions and reduce the burden on infrastructure.”
"Patient confidentiality can also be enhanced through teleconsultation. Apps can also be developed that translate physician prescription into a medicine calendar which can notify patients when to take which medication," she adds.
BETTER RESPONSE TIMES
Dr Ziad Alobeidi, head of the telemedicine department at Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres, says that at the height of the pandemic, telemedicine "stepped into the spotlight and helped healthcare providers and caregivers better respond to the needs of patients who have become infected with the virus and patients who needed to stay in contact with their providers."
People now perceive telemedicine as a convenient, accessible and safe alternative to access healthcare services and stay in touch with their provider, according to Dr Alobeidi.
"There is going to be such a push from the public to have and be able to continue to use this type of service that I would expect it to become a standard of care for many."
Dr Amaka Kate Uzu, a family medicine consultant at Abu Dhabi’s Bareen International Hospital, shares:
“Since the pandemic began, the proliferation of effective video conferencing software has allowed us to incorporate this into telemedicine – expanding the offering to video consultations [and] providing prescriptions without necessarily seeing the patient face-to-face.”
"I find patients are quite happy to be given this option as a form of consultation, and I believe the virtual landscape is here to stay and will continue to evolve,” she adds.