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South Africa doctors see benefits of telemedicine – though 9 in 10 concerned some patients may get left behind

17 December 2020

Many South Africa doctors see that telemedicine has benefits and will remain a fundamental tool in practice, however 9 in 10 doctors are concerned that some vulnerable patient groups may be left behind if telemedicine increases post Covid-19, according to a survey by Medical Protection.

In the Medical Protection survey of 512 South Africa doctors, 56% agreed that the benefits of telemedicine have been unquestionable during Covid-19, and that it will remain a fundamental tool in practice. However, 94% raised concerns about patients whose access to remote services may be impacted by factors such as digital literacy, disability, language, location or internet connection.

93% of the doctors surveyed went on to say they are concerned that if some patients feel excluded from telemedicine, this may result in a breakdown in the doctor/patient relationship, or conditions being left untreated.  95% also said they are generally more worried about missing something in a remote consultation, with 79% saying they are more worried about a claim or investigation arising.

Medical Protection – the world’s leading protection organisation supporting more than 32,000 healthcare professionals in South Africa – said the Government and healthcare system must take a long-term strategic approach when it comes to the role of virtual care beyond the pandemic, taking into account doctors’ concerns, patients’ experiences, and vastly different levels of access across South Africa.

Dr Graham Howarth, Head of Medical Services – Africa at Medical Protection, said: “Telemedicine is not a new concept and the use of technology in delivering medical services has been slowly evolving over the years. However Covid-19 has fast-tracked large scale adoption and South Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit has seen many innovative telemedicine solutions offered to doctors and patients.

“While there have been undoubted benefits during the pandemic, there are naturally concerns around its limitations, the need for support and training due to the different skills required when consulting in this way, and the desired role of virtual care beyond the pandemic.

“A key concern for doctors is the potential for vulnerable patient groups to be left behind and for health inequalities to grow, if there is desire for more patient consultations to be delivered online after Covid-19. Access to remote services could be impacted by different levels of access across the country, as well as digital literacy and other factors.

“As doctors have highlighted in our survey, if patients feel excluded from telemedicine, this could lead to a breakdown in the doctor/patient relationship or conditions going untreated.  A significant number of doctors are concerned about the potential for medicolegal disputes and investigations to arise from this and other limitations of telemedicine.

“At earlier stages of the pandemic, Medical Protection was vocal in seeking updated guidance from the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) which provided greater certainty on the use of telemedicine – or telehealth – during the pandemic.

“Medical Protection has also been working with doctors to help them adapt to the significant increase in telemedicine and mitigate risks through our Risk Prevention programmes on the medicolegal, ethical and communication challenges which telemedicine creates. But the burden should not be on doctors to address the digital inequalities across society.

“The Government, hospitals and healthcare system as a whole must take a long-term strategic approach when considering the role of virtual care beyond the pandemic. This should be based on the experiences of patients, an ongoing evaluation of the barriers to accessing telemedicine, and the concerns raised by doctors.”

END

Notes to editors

  • The survey was conducted by Medical Protection. It ran from 22 October – 6 November and achieved 512 responses from doctors in South Africa.

For press queries contact: E: mike.bridge@medicalprotection.org  T:+44 (0)7773 573303

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