According to the World Health Organization (the “WHO”), the concept of ‘telemedicine’ (telehealth) involves the use of telecommunication and information technology within the sphere of the health sector. This concept forms part of the broader term, ‘eHealth.’ Telemedicine is mostly applied within, but not limited to, the areas of –
- Electronic consultations;
- The remote monitoring of patients;
- Guidance through basic non-invasive procedures; and
- Guidance through for rehabilitative exercises.
The use of telemedicine had thus become widely popular, as it enables health care practitioners to remotely attend to the needs of patients who may not be easily accessible. It creates a degree of comfort for the user thereof, whilst also alleviating the masses which may gather at health care facilities. All in all, it aids the ever-growing human resource shortage which various countries face.
Devices such as landline telephones, cell phones, smartwatches, laptops and tablets have become increasingly popular to use in the sphere of telemedicine. These devices have evolved in such a manner that they can be used for voice consultations, video examinations and the recording of vital signs.
The Mayo Clinic, which is based in Rochester, Minnesota, USA, lists various advantages of the use of service. But the crux of its findings is that this service depends on the availability of the resources to use such services. Can such a concept be successfully implemented within the context of South Africa? The further question can be raised as to the ethical considerations within the context of health care, should still apply to telemedicine?
Since the late ’90s, the concept of telemedicine had been gradually implemented within South Africa. Initially, such services only related to the use of radiological and pathological services. But various developments over the years had seen this being applied in other disciplines, such as ophthalmology and general practitioners. The main aim of the Department of Health was to implement a system of health care which will be able to reach every person within the country, regardless of where they might be.
The HPCSA which acts as the regulatory authority for the health sector in South Africa had published guidelines for the practice and use of telemedicine. Booklet 10 of the HPCSA Guidelines provides the ethical framework for which such services must be conducted in. These guidelines acknowledge the provision of telemedicine through mediums such as email messages, telephonic calls, videoconferencing or any other communicative form of technology. Through these platforms, a virtual consultation can be created between a health care provider and prospective patient.
This method of healthcare services provision has not only to adhere to the legislation pertaining to healthcare, but also to acts such as the Protection of Personal Information Act, the Consumer Protection Act and the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act. Together these regulatory instruments create and control the environment through which telemedicine services can be provided.
The HPCSA had also acted swiftly to announce the adaption of telemedicine to be widely applied during the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020. With an ever-changing health care environment, more connected digital patient (e-Patient), and a rapidly growing telecommunication and information technology sector, the development of telemedicine is a welcome advent to the health sector.
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