Telemedicine (telehealth) refers to the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology. In the light of Covid-19, telehealth has covered a large part of the healthcare landscape and took the lead in transforming healthcare sector. Clinicians have made efforts to operate technology-based systems to assist patients in a virtual setting for providing curative treatment and counselling services.
Telemedicine has become a house-hold term during this pandemic. The concept of telemedicine is not entirely new and practices began in Bangladesh through the Center for Rehabilitation of Paralyzed (CRP) with the funding of the Swinfen Charitable Trust of the UK in 1999. This pandemic has led to its widespread acceptance at a rocket speed.
Telehealth is bridging the gap between patients and physicians which in turn enables everyone, especially those who have symptoms and are a potential source of spreading infections to stay at home. This will not only cause a drastic reduction in the risk of acquiring HAI (Hospital Acquired Infections) but also reduce the speed at which the virus spreads in the populations and the front liners. Also, increasing use and adoption of telehealth services will reduce the pressure on emergency rooms and hospitals. Patients who are suffering from other medical ailments and chronic diseases during this time can obtain their routine care and treatment from home.
Bangladesh has only 5.3 doctors per 10,000 people and front liners and healthcare service providers are not immune to Covid-19. Even after IPC (Infection Prevention and Control) protocols and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) a high number of health workers have been infected by Covid-19 in Bangladesh and worldwide so far. In situations where they end up contracting the virus followed by going into quarantine but are still willing to virtually “see” their patients, telemedicine can help them provide treatment without the risk of transferring the infection to them. This in turn fills up the gap to a certain extent which otherwise would have been void had the doctor completely been unable to assist the patients, resulting in the loss of healthcare workforce.
According DGHS, high quality telemedicine service has been provided in different levels of hospitals all over the country. Among these, there are 2 specialized hospitals (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases), 3 district hospitals (Shatkhira, Nilphamari and Gopalganj) and 3 sub-district hospitals (Pirgonj, Dakope and Debhata). Through this service, admitted patients in district and sub-district level hospitals can take suggestions from the doctors of specialized hospitals without need for visiting the higher level hospitals.
ShasthoBatayon has been providing services through mobile phones to the general population efficiently since 2015. This is an initiative by the Government of Bangladesh together with Synesis IT. The services provided by calling on this helpline would include connecting a patient to an appropriate doctor, provide information about government hospitals, doctors or health services together with their phone numbers. At present they also provide information regarding the Covid-19 vaccine. Also any complaint about hospitals can be made through this helpline. ShasthoBatayon is now functioning as a digital hospital and has shown a lot of progress in providing healthcare service during the Corona period. ShasthoBatayon ,16263, is a successful initiative playing a very important role in digitalizing the health services of the country.
GrameenPhone runs a “Dial 789” service that uses mobile phones for consultancy purposes at district and upazila levels. This is very effective in suggesting OTC (over the counter) medicine and has more reach since there are no internet requirements. “Jeeon” has been one of the key players in the telemedicine industry for some too. They entered the market by signing an agreement with Paper fly. Paperfly will deliver life-saving medicine to remote areas pharmacies of the country as a partner of Jeeon.
Other than these, a number of health-tech start-ups such as Doctorola, Digital Health, Praava health, Maya, Bangla meds and NRB patient care have helped digitalize healthcare. Development and acceptance of innovative healthcare apps which may act as a safety net for people suffering from mental illness, social isolation and address other health conditions will be a necessary step to further transform healthcare services.
While we see that telemedicine is shaping the future of the health industry and there are a number of advantages telehealth possess, the interpersonal aspect remains a question. Do patients feel the same sense of convenience and peace of mind after they have been assessed by a doctor virtually? To solve this problem is Artificial Intelligence the answer? Can AI conjure up holographic representations of doctors in the near future?
Dr. Sahar Raza is Senior Business Development Officer, Eminence Associates for Social Development