Twenty years ago, the internet was changing communication. MSN Messenger created an environment in the Arab world where individuals would be able to communicate for free seamlessly. The internet was newly introduced to the Arab world, and just as with any other innovation, people were a little apprehensive. I don’t suppose we can point to a particular event or time in the past two decades when the internet became an integral part of the way we communicate with each other. Today, it’s as easy as pressing a button on your phone because that is all it takes! It’s one tap to FaceTime, or to jump on Zoom for meetings, or to catch up on the events of the world.
Adoption of Telemedicine
For telemedicine, the adoption curve is a bit clearer. The rise of telemedicine was inevitable. We used to think that the new norm of using telemedicine on a daily basis would be sometime in 2025. However, COVID-19 changed everything. In a little over six months, life as we know it has been turned upside down. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many things have changed, including the position of telemedicine in healthcare delivery. People are working from home, travel has been restricted, schools and public events have been halted. With over 4,000 deaths in the GCC and the continued need for testing and personal protective equipment (PPEs), the fear of contracting COVID-19 is understandable.
Amid these events, healthcare has seen a rise in telemedicine. The public appetite for healthcare options that offer a safe and convenient method of seeking care has increased and telemedicine has been an obvious vehicle. Whether healthcare organizations are ready or not, the era of virtual care has arrived before its time, with telemedicine spearheading the change. Healthcare will be a lot different from what we see it to be today. The growing evolution and innovation in technology is promoting the development of more Telemedicine companies or innovating features in existing companies.
Telemedicine on the Rise in the GCC
Given how the rapid spread of COVID-19 is impacting the traditional methods of healthcare delivery, telemedicine is now being used much more widely to screen and diagnose patients without risking exposure to the virus. The National Health Regulatory Authority (NHRA) of the Kingdom of Bahrain along with the Bahraini Ministry of Health implemented primary and secondary legislations and procedures to ease the use of telemedicine. For the first time, hospitals and clinics were allowed to use internal and external methods of telemedicine without requiring a license. The NHRA allowed much more flexibility and created an environment where telemedicine transformed how patients spoke to their medical practitioners.
Telemedicine approaches allowed general staff – including those in quarantine, those in high-risk groups (older, immunosuppressed), and those with childcare responsibilities – to work remotely, supplementing in-person clinical services during the surge. At hospitals, there was definitely a high number of patients being admitted to the ICU with COVID-19, researchers have paid particular attention to the necessary considerations for executing tele-ICU services.
This brings us to more advanced telemedicine services which I anticipate will rule the healthcare industry in the Arab world or MENA region. Telemedicine services like the ones we provide on platform, our Doctori (including tele-evaluation, tele-monitoring, tele-prescriptions, tele-testing and tele-reporting) may be familiar today. However, what is not familiar are services like tele-cardiology or tele-surgery. I believe that these innovations will penetrate the market sooner than later.
The Different Issues with Telemedicine
Telemedicine does have its perks. Nevertheless, there is a downside. A majority of people still lack access to the basic infrastructure that could facilitate a virtual visit. A lot of clinics and doctors suggested that they have some patients that do not have capabilities for virtual visits and non-stable chronic visits, well-child visits, and developmental assessments are considered least suitable for both phone and video visits. Even on the provider’s side, the technical aspects could be the sticking point for many. Some providers have not invested in the infrastructure that could enable virtual visits, which now poses an added challenge.
The down part of this is the lack of proper regulatory procedures in most Arab countries to allow the implementation of telemedicine. Additionally, reimbursement of these services has been a significant challenge. As of today, not all of the GCC countries have regulations related to reimbursement for telemedicine visits. Not to mention the fact that countries like Kuwait, Qatar and Oman still lack an infrastructure for telemedicine regulations.
Further, what is arguably the most important challenge is the change in the provider-patient relationship in virtual visits. We have noticed since the launch of our telemedicine platform (Doctori Online Services), that a lot of patients feel uncomfortable speaking with an unfamiliar Doctori or medical practitioner. This makes a difference when we deal with patients that primarily require one-time calls. That is why it was very critical for us (Doctori), as a telemedicine provider, to ensure that we took the time to plan patients’ journeys through our platform, and make doctors understand their situation to engage with them in a meaningful way.
These are, without a doubt, challenging times for us. Telemedicine is far from perfect in the current world and many of the adjustments are temporary. But the reign of coronavirus will end one day, and just like the internet, telemedicine will remain predominant in healthcare.
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