Picture: 123RF/Jae Young Ju
Picture: 123RF/Jae Young Ju

Covid-19 has taken the doctor’s visit from the consulting room to platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Google Meet. The pandemic had the unintended effect of forcing medical professionals and their patients to adopt technology quickly, as people concluded that avoiding close contact with strangers included staying far away from the doctor’s rooms.

The tech innovation didn’t stop there. For one, Discovery Health has launched its own Covid-19 service for users to book a video consultation with a doctor through the company’s website or mobile app. The Discovery DrConnect service is free to members of the medical aid, and its benefits include access to a worldwide network of over 140,000 doctors from 200 countries across 147 specialities.

Similarly, Netcare’s Medicross launched a telehealth platform at the end of September for virtual consultations. The Netcare VirtualCare includes video consultations via mobile devices and computers or a dial-in function for those who don’t have an internet connection.

Netcare chief information officer Travis Dewing says consultations are provided through a secure platform, with data encrypted to protect the patient’s privacy and confidential information.

The most recent such product prompted by the pandemic is an independent virtual medical consulting app called Ollie Health. It was built on the premise that when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available its distribution to the public is going to be a challenge.

Ollie Health CEO Marc Knowles says the app is intended to be one of the main platforms for people to book a vaccine for their family easily, as well as more general consultations.. "In conversations with health-care providers, the remark that the pandemic hit bookings hard was universally made," says Knowles.

"Appointments were down more than 40% in some cases. So we knew there was a big opportunity to make video appointments super easy for patients and help increase bookings and revenue for health-care professionals."

The Ollie Health app is an on-demand virtual health-care booking platform. For now, just 20 professionals, mainly from Joburg and Cape Town, have signed up. Patients can book an appointment 24/7 from anywhere within SA. The appointments can be for any time, even 2am or 9pm, as the health-care providers offer slots in accordance with their availability.

The app’s product model is similar to Airbnb in the way it connects supply and demand. The current version of the app does not have a payment method; it only facilitates the booking and the doctor invoices the patient.

Knowles says: "Traditionally, the business model for a medical practice is dependent on location. Our platform will allow professionals and patients to connect across the provinces of SA."

The first version of Ollie was designed and coded in four months during the lockdown. Knowles got the idea when he fell sick in Cape Town after returning from working in Canada and found the experience of trying to book a doctor with back-and-forth phone calls extremely frustrating.

"Going from seamless on-demand care in Canada to trying to book a doctor in Cape Town planted the seed, showing that there was a huge problem to solve. Local access to private and public healthcare was extremely limited," he says. He had used similar apps in Canada, but they did not offer virtual appointments.

He adds that Ollie Health is not meant to "disrupt" existing platforms. "Ollie is twice as fast as Google at finding professionals nearby, sending an e-mail or making a phone call.

"We are the first native iOS and Android app in which you can find, instantly book and have the consultation all in one."

Knowles acknowledges that all start-ups have exponential risk factors, and that the Covid-economy accelerated that risk. Having witnessed the software industry eating into health care and real estate in Toronto, he says it’s about bringing data and design thinking to solve outdated problems.

"Our product requires people to change existing behaviour; how we book a doctor is a legacy behaviour. We know that if we can make that process even 10% better during these uncertain times we can bring a lot of value to people’s lives."

Fatima Cassim, who holds a PhD in information design and is a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria, says that while we may not be able to combat the virus with our hand-held devices, we can certainly manage prevention and control by way of digital innovations.

"The Ollie app is underpinned by an intent [to connect], which in itself is an essential part of wellbeing. Health care is an essential service provision that would benefit from an accessible technological platform even after the pandemic," says Cassim.

There are financial and psychological benefits, she adds. "First, transport costs will be decreased, thereby reducing the overall cost of the consultation. Second, patients are often embarrassed to discuss their emotional and physical wellbeing openly, so a virtual platform may allow the necessary distance for patients to ease into conversations about difficult topics."

SA is still grappling with huge inequalities owing to a fractured past; so a priority will be to create equitable systems to bridge social and spatial gaps in the country, Cassim says.

"The potential of mobile technology to address this need is exciting, because constraints are an excellent catalyst for creativity and innovation," she says.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is a broad term that could include a virtual consultation between doctor and patient, health gadgets and tools or even information to enable better self-care. It takes the form of live video conferencing, mobile health apps or wearable devices that record health information (that could be shared with doctors). At its most basic, telehealth can let patients track health indicators, and set medication and appointment reminders. But it also includes tools that medical professionals use to improve their patient care, communication and tracking.

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