The Covid-19 pandemic has not just changed the way we work and play, it has fundamentally impacted the manner and means by which people communicate, engage, shop and enjoy entertainment.

More than a year of lockdown and restrictions have also seen the foundations laid for telemedicine. With technology progressing rapidly, the trajectory may mean significant growth in virtual medicine.

Futurist thinker Jon Foster-Pedley of the Henley School of Business believes this future is closer than we think.

“Telemedicine is really a combination of technologies and processes that allow you to have more efficient and more frequent conversations with your doctor for less time and gets, in most cases, very similar results,” says Foster-Pedley. “Telemedicine allows a doctor to see multiple people by connecting via phone or computer with software like Zoom.”

He says by using technology sensors to monitor health, it is already possible to take blood pressure and other tests remotely.

“It’s a technological enhancement of the old-fashioned GP. What this allows GPs to do, of course, is increase their reach and to give a lot more medical advice.”

He also believes that it may serve to lower the cost of healthcare in the long run.

General practitioner Dr Tshego Masemola says while remote consultations were commonplace during hard lockdown, there is a lot to be said for the level of support and diagnosis that face-to-face engagement delivers.

“It is not really possible to do a proper physical exam of a patient in a virtual environment,” she says.

She adds that while telemedicine has the potential to enhance health, wellness and care, it is not a panacea.

“But in the future,” forecasts Foster-Pedley, “we may be permanently wearing a body-monitoring kit embedded in our garments. We are already wearing watches that measure blood pressure, heart rates and even blood oxygen levels.

“The more you get used to this way of medicine, the more you will be able to get good healthcare, without also exposing yourself to the time, money and risk from the infection challenges of going to a doctor’s practice,” says Foster-Pedley.

“There are still times when you need to see a doctor face to face, which is really important in terms of reassurance for many people,” but he argues that as technology advances, devices, improved online methods and artificial intelligence will allow for a far more automated way of health and medicine.

In a country like South Africa where there is limited access to high speed, full suite internet, the picture is somewhat different believes Dr Masemola.

She questions the practicality of telemedicine, particularly in rural areas where clinics and healthcare services are already taking strain due to thin resources.

“Mobile internet connectivity is also not fantastic in these areas to boot,” she says, adding that a technological leap into telemedicine may only be in a far distant future.

Foster-Pedley says while telemedicine may not be instantly available to everyone, he does see its potential across many divides. “There is a great advantage for less fortunate people.”

He adds it will make medical care more affordable. “This will be done by reengineering the doctor’s processes, rethinking how data may be sent in and analysed.”

He believes it won’t be long “until we’ve got a form of healthcare that is going to be more pervasively available to people. And that’s a lower cost.”

 



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