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South Africa, and the rest of Africa, should embrace the evolution of telemedicine for its potential to make healthcare more accessible and to significantly impact the lives of rural populations, says Dr Helen Weber, Medical Adviser at Sanlam.

It’s happening faster than we think. In fact, countries like America have seen a significant reduction in healthcare costs since the implementation of telemedicine in everyday clinical practices. Weber believes there is undoubtedly potential to also bridge the gap in Africa’s most rural regions, where no or very few specialists are available.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)*, 43% of South Africa’s population lives in rural regions, with just one physician responsible for 7 700 people. Africa, home to 14% of the world’s population, struggles with 24% of the global burden of disease, yet the continent hosts just 3% of the world’s healthcare workers.

With telemedicine, rural patients can have access to a specialist through videoconferencing, teleradiology and telepathology. The implementation of digital health records is already enabling South African patients to see healthcare practitioners anywhere in the country.

“With telemedicine, rural patients can have access to a specialist through videoconferencing, teleradiology and telepathology,” says Dr Helen Weber, Medical Adviser at Sanlam.

Critical advantages of the telemedicine trend include:

  • Saving costs and time for patients, hospitals, medical aids and health insurers: Instead of moving staff and equipment, you bring the doctor to the patient at minimal cost.
  • Increased access to healthcare and specialist care: Patients don’t have to wait to see a specialist at a hospital as results can be sent straight to the specialist. Telemedicine and online medical records can also give all stakeholders access to blood tests and special investigations, reducing duplication and costs.
  • It can help personalise insurance: New technologies, big data and machine learning mean insurers like Sanlam can enhance their clients’ experiences through increasingly personalised underwriting.
  • It may assist employers to offer better primary healthcare options: Telemedicine can offer a cost-effective option for employers to help employees manage chronic conditions, illnesses and general wellness through access to practitioners and health education.
  • It provides health education: With an influx of apps and wearables that aim to educate people on how to live a healthy life, telemedicine offers the public more health education awareness and healthcare workers access to ongoing education in remote regions.
  • It catalyses innovation: Myriad technologies are advancing and complement telemedicine as a consequence – for example, 3D organ printing (bio printing) which shows promise for transplant patients. Currently, local telemedicine options include a 24-hour baby hotline, a diabetes coaching service, second-opinion sourcing from Medigo and Hello Doctor, mobile apps offering medical information and advice – to name but a few.

Of course, the security of private information remains imperative and is likely to evolve further. In South Africa, telemedicine is governed by the Health Professions Council of South Africa. From a tech perspective, data and private regulations like the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), provide oversight.

*Source: World Health Organisation



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