Coronavirus: Remote healthcare here to stay in Middle East: experts

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Regional experts have said remote health care – accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic – will increasingly be the forefront of medicine across the GCC.

Telemedicine was rapidly adopted by hospitals and clinics across the Gulf – and the wider world – in 2020, as the global pandemic burdened front line staff and lockdowns left millions confined to their homes.

Health experts say remote healthcare will continue to take priority over traditional brick and mortar health care settings in the new year.

Mansoor Ahmed, director of healthcare, education and PPP at advisory firm Colliers International, said that during COVID-19, primary healthcare services were disrupted due to lockdown and due to the risk of risk of infection spreading.

“Even people with acute and chronic ailments including lifestyle diseases were reluctant to go to hospitals and clinics and telemedicine become the ‘new normal,’” he said. “However, even in a post-COVID world, we don’t expect that telemedicine will lose its important, as now people has realized that for chronic diseases you don’t need to see a doctor physically every time when you need a refill.

“We expect that role of remote patient monitoring to increase further in the post-COVID world.”

A telemedicine ‘explosion’

Dr. Ziad Alobeidi, head of telemedicine at Medcare Hospitals & Medical centers in the UAE, said telemedicine “exploded” in 2020.

“Remote healthcare – or telehealth - has made a very positive contribution to healthcare during the pandemic and is being used in a variety of ways. It is emerging as an effective and sustainable solution for precaution, prevention and treatment to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Alobeidi said telehealth is bridging the gap between people, physicians and health systems, enabling everyone, especially symptomatic patients, to stay at home and communicate with physicians through virtual channels, helping to reduce the spread of the virus and the medical staff on the frontlines.

“Telemedicine is also now being used extensively in the prior triage of patients long before they arrive in the primary care clinics in an effort to reduce the pressures facing emergency rooms and clinics.”

“By arranging telehealth solutions, people who are suffering from other medical ailments during this time can receive care from home, without entering medical facilities, minimizing their risk of contracting the virus.”

A virtual model of care

Adding virtual care to a practice offers patients simple and immediate care, said Dr. Alobeidi.

“Patients who live in remote locations, or who are homebound or just can’t take off time from work, can access care virtually as well. Telemedicine systems connect more patients with providers than ever before.”

In addition many chronic patients can from home have scheduled teleconsultations to avoid face-to-face clinic visits and hence minimize their risks of exposure to COVID-19, Alobeidi said.

“Their medication is delivered to their home, and their condition can be monitored closely, almost on a daily basis. If there are any changes in their clinical states, appropriate actions can be taken immediately.

This, he said, offers great comfort and assurance to the patients in these trying times.

“They can also access personal medical information and lab test results, refill needed prescriptions, schedule appointments with a physician and receive important updates and reminders tailored to their needs.”

“For now, telehealth is playing a big role during the COVID-19 crisis. Even now that vaccines have emerged, it’s likely that all of us will continue to proceed with caution.

“We will continue to opt for services that mitigate risk and reduce unnecessary interactions.”

Dr. Alobeidi said in a recent survey, 90 per cent of healthcare providers have already begun developing or implementing a telemedicine program into their organizations as a more convenient and accessible means of receiving care. According to a recent Cisco global survey, 74 per cent of patients prefer easy access to healthcare services over in-person interactions with providers.

“Insurance companies have quickly realized that telemedicine can significantly reduce healthcare service costs, saving money for the provider, the patient, and insurance companies. Telemedicine also reduces unnecessary non-urgent emergency visits.”

Beyond these obvious cost-savings, telemedicine can help boost revenue by turning on-call hours into billable time, attracting new patients, reducing no-shows, and even reducing overhead for physicians who decide to switch to a flexible work-from-home model for part of the week as well as extending the specialist and physician availability, said Dr. Alobeidi.

“Telemedicine also offers a patient-centered approach and improved timeliness of care. This is critical to quality patient care and to maintain a healthy population. Patients can address healthcare issues quickly with real-time urgent care consultations and learn about treatment options within minutes.”

Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, chairman and managing director of VPS Healthcare, said telehealth will help communities adapt to the “new realities of the world in the post-COVID era and deliver the best services to communities.”

He added: “COVID-19 has exposed the limitations of the present healthcare system.

“Learning from the current crisis, we must reinvent and build a robust healthcare ecosystem that can cater to the needs of all the population in the future.”

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