Telemedicine is just what the doctor ordered, especially during a global pandemic, and technological advances are further encouraging its development and implementation, explains Samantha Page, Group Editor of Health, John Brown Media SA
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to shake things up and shift the needle on projects that may have been mired in red tape for too long. Telemedicine is one of those “nice to haves” that has evolved into a “must-have” as the healthcare industry and government attempt to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic while providing quality, safe healthcare to as many people as possible.
The South African Telemedicine System, as per the General Ethical Guidelines for Good Practice in Telemedicine (August, 2014) developed by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), is to deliver healthcare services at a distance to South African communities in underserved areas, as well as improve the connection between developed healthcare facilities and underdeveloped rural areas.
Despite these basic guidelines, the HPCSA has heavily regulated remote healthcare practices and limited its applications for years – that is, until COVID-19. With doctors and healthcare practitioners forcing its hand, the HPCSA has allowed the use of video and telephone calls between health professionals and existing patients for the duration of the pandemic, although that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad ways patients and healthcare professionals can connect. What is remarkable is that telemedicine has taken such a long time to become a feature on the healthcare landscape, given its particular relevance to the African continent.
Addressing the need
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 43% of the South African population lives in rural areas with just one physician to service 7,700 people, and despite Africa being home to 14% of the world’s population and struggling with 24% of the global disease burden, the continent hosts just 3% of the world’s healthcare workers.
Until very recently, South Africa, and Africa as a whole, has been lagging behind international telemedicine developments and local regulators have failed to remain relevant despite changing patient needs, technological advances and a dynamic global healthcare environment, which recognises the following as effective methods of remote treatment options:
While the benefits in rural settings don’t need much explanation, telemedicine is no longer just of value to underserved communities in far-flung places. Limiting foot traffic into consultation rooms during the height of the pandemic was a given, but there are countless other benefits for patients and marketers.
Breathing life into health
According to the technology, innovation and marketing blog site Medium, telemedicine could become a great marketing tool for healthcare and pharmaceutical brands, as it allows for brands to engage directly and instantly with prospective customers. Add targeted SEO and brands have a direct route to audiences that could become loyal converts when their healthcare needs are met with a quality, bespoke service.
Here are two good examples.
- Employee Wellness Programmes
Telemedicine is hugely beneficial to employers who want to help employees manage chronic conditions, illnesses and general wellness by offering access to health and wellness information, qualified health professionals and advice about safe occupational health practices. My Wellness Compass is an employee wellness platform, developed and managed by John Brown Media SA, which provides tailored health and wellness content on behalf of Life Healthcare.
- Increased access to healthcare and specialist care
Discovery, also a John Brown client, though we didn’t work on this execution, partnered with Vodacom to provide all South Africans with free COVID-19 online doctor consultations. While these brands are providing free access to reliable information, risk screening and, when necessary, free online medical consultations, this initiative has also opened the door to future telemedicine initiatives with a grateful audience at the ready, and perhaps the project is part of an even broader inbound marketing strategy.
Making the connection
While there is evidence to support the link between telemedicine and improved clinical outcomes, additionally, telemedicine is a measurable commodity that can be directly linked to ROI. Many providers have already adopted patient-centric models, but a digital-first healthcare strategy can bring those models to life by providing patients with life-saving tools and health solutions when they are most in need of them.
The most successful digital initiatives are those that target and address a specific problem as part of a greater transformation. Challenges still exist in ensuring privacy and in regulating treatment without hindering progress, but consider that telemedicine technologies are expected to reach $77 billion by 2022 (The Business Research Company). When you add the ubiquity of mobile devices for healthcare, it’s clear that there are great opportunities here to improve health and wellbeing and make it more accessible to more people on our continent than it has ever been before.