Telemedicine is the practice of medicine using electronic communications, information technology or other electronic means by “a healthcare practitioner for the purpose of facilitating, improving and enhancing clinical, education and scientific healthcare and research”.
The field of Telemedicine has become increasingly popular over the last few decades in line with the new developments in technology. Telemedicine is a service that can be used in hospitals, homes, private physician offices and other healthcare facilities.
When referring to the use of Telemedicine, practitioners must adhere to the Ethical Guidelines provided by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPSCA) as well as other relevant applicable legislation in South Africa.
It must be noted that normal healthcare services such as “face-to-face” consultations with clients are not being replaced by Telemedicine, it is rather an alternative or complementary to the above which helps to enhance access for all South Africans. This includes the disadvantaged people who have little to no access to health services.
The HPSCA’s guidelines for good practice in Telemedicine must be followed by all health practitioners. A few guidelines to note are for example that the practitioner’s conduct must remain ethical and professional at all times; that confidentiality for the patient must be adhered to at all times; that routine and standard healthcare procedures, especially face-to-face consultation, physical examinations and taking a history from patients must be adhered to.
Treatment including issuing a prescription based solely on questionnaires or similar non-personal methods does not constitute an acceptable standard of care. Formal (preferably written) consent for among other things, specific services, including diagnosis and prescriptions and Information Communication Technology (ICT’s) equipment to be used, must always be secured from the patient and lastly, the consulting practitioner remains responsible for the treatment, decisions and other recommendations given to the patient at all times.
In light of the above, the expansion of the use of Telemedicine in South Africa may prove to be very beneficial with its aim to enhance the access to health care services for all South Africans, as long as the HPSCA’s guidelines are strictly adhered to.