Telehealth: virtual care that protects the health of patients and doctors


Why does psychiatrist, Prof Cristoffel Grobler, say that telehealth is a ready made solution that can help doctors better respond to the healthcare needs of South Africans in the time of COVID-19? Why is this psychiatrist so passionate about the potential held by telehealth?

Listen to Prof Grobler share his views on telehealth in this podcast:

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of telehealth across the world, and South Africa is following this powerful trend.

“This technology, now under the spotlight, is quickly becoming a critical tool in coronavirus 2019 care and in slowing down the spread of COVID-19,” says psychiatrist, Prof Cristoffel Grobler. He also heads up the clinical unit at Elizabeth Donkin Hospital, is an associate professor at the Walter Sisulu University and a research associate at the Nelson Mandela University.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is not new and, says Prof Grobler, it “has been available for as long as the telephone has been around. It is, simply put, the use of electronic communication technologies to provide healthcare when there is distance between participants.” Prof Grobler believes providers and policymakers are currently “playing catch up” with telehealth technologies as they are realising the valuable solution they provide in dealing with patient care, particularly in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Using telehealth helps to:

  1. Screen and provide ongoing treatment to people remotely without the need for travel to hospitals or doctors’ rooms. This limits possible exposure to COVID-19.
  2. Provide safe, routine care for people with mental illness and other chronic conditions that make them more vulnerable to complications should they acquire COVID-19.
  3. Protect the health of doctors and healthcare providers who are at a high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19. When doctors contract COVID-19 and show no symptoms, they can continue to consult with patients using telehealth platforms while in quarantine at home.

In South Africa, the Health Professions Council redefined the services included in telehealth in March 2020 for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Telehealth” is now the overarching term that includes telemedicine, telepsychology, telepsychiatry, telerehabilitation and remote consultations using telephonic or online platforms.

The role of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Through telehealth, people with different medical ailments can still receive care from home without having to visit a hospital or the doctor’s consulting rooms, thereby minimising the risk of contracting coronavirus 2019,” says Prof Grobler.

And, while some people may feels that consulting a doctor has become very complicated due to the need for physical distancing, Prof Grobler reminds us telehealth can be as simple as a telephone call or text or video message between you and your doctor.

Telehealth provides a high standard of care with other benefits

Prof Grobler emphasises that while many are still learning, the accuracy of a diagnosis, efficacy of treatment and patient satisfaction are not affected when using telehealth. Some conditions still require face-to-face consultation, but what he values most about telehealth is that it allows a GP and a specialist to be in the “same examination room” – and that doesn’t happen often.

What you have to know when using telehealth platforms:

  • Your doctor may ask your consent before continuing with the consultation.
  • Technology can come with system glitches and you need to understand how to set up and use the technology ahead of your consultation. If technology fails, your doctor may request a face-to-face consultation based on the urgency of your care.
  • Choose an appropriate time for the consultation to prevent possible interruptions and make sure that you are alone so that you can talk to your doctor about the things that may be confidential. Tell your doctor if there is someone else in the room who can hear your conversation.

From teething problems to telehealth becoming a preference

The processes and rules around online medicine prescriptions can vary between pharmacy groups. Prof Grobler says, “This is an area that authorities need to pay urgent attention to so that the approach can be standardised.”

He adds that:

  • It may take time for people to get used to telehealth and both healthcare providers and patients still lack an understanding of technology.
  • Using online platforms could possibly lead to a breach in confidentiality.
  • Technical issues like internet connectivity, poor picture quality and lagging can disrupt consultations.

However, there is no doubt that telehealth saves time, money and resources. As more practices adopt telehealth, it can be effective in solving other problems in the healthcare system too. Prof Grobler says. “COVID-19 will remain a health threat until a vaccine becomes available or until enough people in our population have built up immunity. This means that we will have to keep relying on telehealth for the foreseeable future and our current habits will possibly even become preferences.”


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