'Telemedicine here to stay' a year after COVID-19 prompts PH lockdown

Gillan Ropero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 11 2021 12:17 PM | Updated as of Mar 26 2021 04:55 PM

A health worker inside a temporary emergency room for non COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Quezon City on April 28, 2020. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News file photo

MANILA – After a few taps and calls on her smartphone, recovering tuberculosis patient Rie Domingo had prescribed medicine for her sore throat without her venturing outside.

A year after President Rodrigo Duterte restricted travel in and out of Metro Manila due to COVID-19, telemedicine has provided patients the means to consult their doctors at the comfort of their homes.

“Telemedicine is here to stay. There are many secure online platforms for this purpose that doctors can use. Because consultations are online, patients from far-flung regions in the country can see their doctor of choice in another locality,” Dr. Winlove Mojica told ABS-CBN News.

Medifi, a telehealth platform with over 3,000 doctors, has served nearly 37,000 patients since March last year with an average of 80-100 consultations per day, said its CEO Jay Fajardo.

“Aside from helping to relieve pressure on the overburdened healthcare system, telehealth provided a safe way for patients to consult with their doctors while avoiding unnecessary exposure,” he said.

“According to our network of doctors, they intend to keep a significant part of their online consulting practice, even after the threats of the pandemic have subsided and quarantine rules have relaxed.”

The most common concerns addressed by Medifi are in the fields of dermatology, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, and pediatrics, according to Fajardo.

Mojica, a dermatologist, said telemedicine has been a “blessing” to his practice.

“I'm very lucky that the field of Dermatology is a visual field. Even before the pandemic we have been practicing telemedicine to help physicians in rural communities in diagnosing skin conditions. Most of the time I just need to look at photos to arrive at a correct diagnosis,” he said.

Online patient consultations however has its downsides, Mojica added.

“I can only see a limited number of patients in a day. Online consultations can be tiring too in a different way. When internet connection is faulty, consultations seem to last forever," he said.

"There are also patients who bombard you with questions even after official clinic hours. For patients with more complicated conditions, I have to refer them to other doctors who hold physical clinics. I could not admit patients at the hospital as I used to.”

Telemedicine does not replace in-person consultation but “complements it,” said Fajardo.

“There are many cases when teleconsulting is useful for post-treatment follow-up...It is also quite effective providing a level of triage, particularly when studies show that 70 percent of physical clinical visits are avoidable,” he said.

“It is very convenient both for doctors and patients. In-person consultations though can never be replaced and can be offered for those needing standard physical examination, Mojica said.

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Telemedicine is convenient, Domingo said, but she still needs in-person consultation for her annual lung checkups.

“Both work fine for me. It just depends on the severity of the situation I am in,” she said.

As COVID-19 cases rise anew in the capital region, Mojica advises the public to “maximize online consultations.” 

“Almost all doctors have an online platform. Medical societies also provide free online consultations. Make use of these. If after seeing a doctor online and your condition is not improving, don't be scared to schedule for an in-person examination. Just wear your face mask and face shield properly when you visit a health facility. Also, don't forget to wash your hands,” he said.

“Aside from diligent mask wearing and increasing the emphasis on observing personal hygiene, it’s important to continue disciplined social-distancing and to avoid non-essential movement beyond the safety of our homes. These circuit-breaking practices, combined with the increased availability of vaccines, will be the only way we can all emerge from this pandemic as fast as possible,” Fajardo said.

The Philippines has so far recorded more than 600,000 coronavirus infections a year after its first reported case, who was a traveler from the Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus originated.

The government began vaccinations against the disease last week following the arrival of jabs from China's Sinovac and initial doses of AstraZeneca from global alliance COVAX Facility.