The virtual doctor is in: Contactless consultations in the time of COVID-19

Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 16 2020 08:02 AM

Telehealth platform MEDIFI remotely connects doctors and patients anywhere in the Philippines. Online consultations have gained popularity due to the lockdown of Luzon to beat COVID-19. ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- Her finger painful and swollen, Yazhmin Malajito tapped on her smartphone for a cure, mindful that she needs to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a few minutes, a doctor told her exactly what she needed to do.

The doctor on the app sent a prescription for antibiotics via email and instructed her to go to the hospital for a minor procedure. The 23-year-old copywriter recalled opening the app at around 10:30 p.m. and had a response from a nurse in 10 minutes.

"Di ko na kaya ‘yung pain at iba na appearance ng finger ko. I wanted to go to a hospital kahit risky, but I remembered an email from our HR about this virtual doctor nga,” Malajito said.

(I can't take the pain anymore and my finger's appearance is different)

"Parang nasa ospital lang, except walang personal interaction (it was just like I was in a hospital, except there was no personal interaction)," she said.

Yazhmin Malajito suffered from a Felon infection. Yazhmin Malajito

Like groceries, food and services affected by the lockdown, healthcare is being delivered online, offering millions under home quarantine to see a doctor, albeit on their smartphones.

Malajito said the online consult cost P450 and it was covered by her health card.

VIRTUAL DOCTORS

Despite being around for years, apps that offer virtual consultations gained wider traction due to the Luzon lockdown, MEDIFI CEO and co-founder Jay Fajardo told ABS-CBN News.

MEDIFI, a telehealth platform that connects doctors and patients remotely, was launched in 2015 to relieve the "overburdened" healthcare system. It's new version went online last November 2019, Fajardo said.

Users and doctors on the platform grew "exponentially" after the enhanced community quarantine was announced, he said. The app now has 1,280 doctors and 6,261 patients with over 300 daily sign-ups.

Currently, the app caters to over 120 consultations per day, he said.

"The benefits of telehealth, which had so far been mere theoretical in the past 5 years, were now made apparent by the limits a total lockdown posed on traditional doctor patient consultations," Fajardo said.

"We did indeed experience an exponential surge because of the quarantine," he added.

Users can choose doctors based on specialization and affordability of consultation fees

Patients need to choose a doctor on the app based on specialization and their consultation fees. Once confirmed, virtual consultations can be done through chat and video calls with media, document sharing and e-prescriptions, Fajardo said.

"By being able to choose the doctors based on their economic capacity, we’re able to serve a wider market, even those who have long been hesitant to tap healthcare services because of cost," he said.

There has been a surge in use by millennials like Malajito, which could be due to their "being in the sweet spot of being the market for healthcare while possessing progressive attitudes toward technology," Fajardo said. 

The app has seen higher volumes of requests for Pediatrics and OB-Gyn consultations, Fajardo said.

Although there is a confidentiality clause, they observed requests for pulmonary specialists which could be triggered by respiratory illnesses related to COVID-19, he said.

It took a coronavirus pandemic for Malajito and for the other Filipinos to trust virtual consultations.

"Nakakakaba kasi (it's scary) what if the doctor didn't really understand my problem? What if photos weren't enough? Swerte lang 'yung condition ko in a way kasi pwedeng mapicturan...Super thankful for these apps and the frontliners behind them. They're medical professionals after all," she said.

Due to e-commerce and online payments, more and more Filipinos are becoming confident to use telehealth services, Fajardo said. 

"The key word now is convenience and the time is right for MEDIFI to provide the same experience as these services, with a keen focus on healthcare," Fajardo said.