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Opinions of Sunday, 26 April 2020

Columnist: Bridget Ama Denteh

COVID-19 paving the way for telemedicine

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There is no doubt about the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on individuals, families, businesses, social structures and the global economy at large. However, history teaches that the human populace is extremely adaptive and will eventually adapt to new practices and methods to survive this pandemic.

Its outbreak has been matched with some basic health protocols for humanity to adhere to or risk infection and negative health consequences. The guiding safety instructions include frequent handwashing with soap under running water, compulsory use of nose masks, avoiding of overcrowded places, eating of healthy diets and social distancing in public.

While all these measures have equal weights in helping to curb the spread of the disease, they are to observed together to ensure maximum impact.

In developing countries, we are used to mingling in crowded physical spaces, such as transport terminals, places of worship, markets, schools, hospitals and many other environments where lots of people assemble.

The call for social distancing as the COVID-19 protocol is drawing attention and lending credence to the advantages of telemedicine.

Telemedicine, by definition, is the use of telecommunications and information technologies to provide remote clinical services to patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) refers to it as “healing from a distance“.

Telemedicine is not a new concept as it started in the 19th century with the inception of telecommunication devices, such as telephones, telegraph and radio. By 1879, a Lancet research had documented how telephones could reduce unnecessary hospital.

Tele-medical practices are conducted in a number of ways but one of the most basic is just a simple video call (like we normally do with family and friends). Through this, physicians and patients share information in real time from different locations. Using telemedicine software, patients can see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment without having to wait for an appointment.

Over time, telemedicine has become embedded in the health delivery systems in advanced countries due to the access and deployment of the required resources, namely technology and the technical knowhow.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, countries have put forth emergency telephone numbers for people who show symptoms of the disease to call for medical assistance. One observation from this is the most likely rise in telemedicine practices. All that is needed is a telecommunication device and, in advanced settings, internet connection and mobile devices with smart features.

It goes without saying that telemedicine is brazing a new trail globally, with many countries are at varying levels of adoption.

The known handicaps of geographic barriers, affordability and accessibility to health facilities which are even more problematic for women, children, the old and persons with disabilities in developing countries will be addressed partially through this system.

What should also be acknowledged as empirically factual is that the internet has made it even very simple for individuals to access health-related information online, and would not wait for lackadaisical regulations before adopting telemedicine.

The postulations above does not mean telemedicine has no drawbacks. By its use as a tool that makes healthcare more accessible, cost-effective and increase in patient-doctor engagement, telemedicine has opened itself up to wanton abuse. Due to the opportunities offered by ICTs, particularly the internet, there have arisen so many predatory schemes which proffer all sorts of solutions (herbal, religious, nutritional, stress management, etc.) to virtually every type of ailment on earth. This is one of several setbacks in the telemedicine industry.

Telemedicine may also look all bubbles but it is imperative to note that technology is expensive. Adopting new ways of doing things meet all forms of resistance. It takes a lot of time and money. Training of staff requires investment in different resources. There are the opportunities of job creation and dangers of job losses for some.

The challenges notwithstanding, it would have been just a matter of time for healthcare systems, medical groups, providers and even solo practitioners to fully integrate and accept telemedicine as part of the healthcare. This novel Coronavirus has just come to speed up the process.

Conclusively, telemedicine is the new normal to contain such contiguous diseases like COVID-19 and the disease is a wakeup call for all countries to engage their public health systems to adopt this mode of healthcare delivery in emergencies like what the world is experiencing now.