The time has come for telemedicine in PH

June 28, 2020

Nothing is more powerful, the great French novelist Victor Hugo said, than an idea whose time has come.

And amid the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic prompting lockdowns and various modes of community quarantine, it can be said that the time has come for the idea of telemedicine to shine in the Philippines.

But telemedicine – which literally means “healing at a distance” – isn’t a new idea because many countries have been practicing it for years. Its benefits are now starting to be reaped in our country to provide health care for the needy not only in far-flung or underserved areas, but also those afraid of going to hospitals for fear of catching the coronavirus.

And telemedicine has no single definitive description. A 2007 study “found 104 peer-reviewed definitions.” The World Health Organization (WHO) said that “the many definitions highlight that telemedicine is an open and constantly evolving science, as it incorporates new advancements in technology and responds and adapts to the changing health needs and contexts of societies.”

In 2010, however, the WHO decided to adopt the broad description of telemedicine as “the delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities.”

In its 2010 report, the WHO said it deems telemedicine and telehealth as synonymous and can be used interchangeably. But it acknowledged some “distinguish telemedicine from telehealth with the former restricted to service delivery by physicians only, and the latter signifying services provided by health professionals in general, including nurses, pharmacists, and others.’

The use of telethealth technology is widespread in the US, according to a CNN report, with 76 percent of US hospitals in 2019 connecting patients to healthcare providers through videoconferencing, electronic consultations and virtual communications.

In the Philippines, the Department of Health intensified the use of telemedicine in 2018 with the RX Box – a combination of “diagnostic devices capable of identifying common medical problems, computerizing results, and transmitting data electronically.” Around 1,000 RX Boxes, invented by the University of the Philippine Manila, have already been deployed to poor municipalities nationwide.

Many medical groups have also embarked on online consultation services to decongest medical facilities. These include the Lung Center of the Philippines’ “COVID AskForce” which was set up in partnership with students of Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health, and the Coalition for People’s Right to Health.

But among the largest telemedicine groups in the country today is the one formed in collaboration with the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) and the League of Data Privacy and Cybersecurity Advocates of the Philippines (LeaDCAP) whereby patients could use the state-of-the-art system called Digital Online Consultation for our People’s Healthcare (DOCPH).

“It is now possible to provide free online healthcare consultations directly to our people who are now quarantined in the comfort of their respective homes. This project aims to decongest our country’s overheating healthcare system so that it can again efficiently serve not only Covid-19 patients, but also treat equally important ailments or cases that are not related to the disease,” according to LeaDCAP Vice President Dr. Leo Olarte, past president of the PMA.

PMA vice president Dr. Benito Atienza said “that a consortium of private medical organizations is involved in the daily operations of DOCPH free online consultations nationwide. This is headed by the PMA and supported by the Private Hospital Association of the Philippines (PHAPi), Beta Sigma Fraternity Medical Group, and the Philippine Digital Medicine Society (PDMS) to mention a few (but growing)  partners in this noble project for the sake of our country and people.” (To be continued)