Hello doctor: Telemedicine has been around. It took a calamity for government to recognise its benefits

The adage of crisis triggering reform in India is coming true yet again amid the Covid-19 outbreak. The world over, policy shifts hanging fire for years are getting fast-tracked in days. On Wednesday, government issued guidelines for doctors wishing to practise telemedicine, which will enable online and telephonic medical consultation. In 2018, an adverse Bombay high court judgment was interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of telemedicine. Since then medical bodies have been petitioning MCI and government to issue clear guidelines. The sheer scale of challenges facing the public healthcare system due to Covid-19’s infectiousness appear to have now expedited the policy shift.

Telemedicine draws on advances like 4G technology facilitating video calling and offers even greater possibilities with a range of sensors beginning to be deployed on smartphones and handheld devices that allow readings of temperature, blood pressure, heart and pulse rate, blood sugar levels, etc. While many Indian cities and southern states outperform the WHO recommended one doctor per thousand population, healthcare facilities are nonexistent over large rural swathes. Doctors are also unwilling to move away from cities, and in this context telemedicine spares many patients the ordeal and expense of travelling to urban areas for medical help.

With reports of unemployment and underemployment of doctors in some states, telemedicine can also bridge the medical field’s demand-supply anomalies. In public healthcare, government can press auxiliary nurse-midwives and ASHA workers into service to act as intermediaries between doctors and patients. This will improve diagnosis and ensure better compliance with prescriptions. Already web portals and mobile apps providing rudimentary telemedicine facilities exist and they can now scale up. Tight regulation of these services can curb malpractices, protect both patients and doctors, improve documentation, and through informed consent even make available medical data for research and cloud computing purposes.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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