Dubai Health Authority telemedicine
A growing number are opting for online consultations Image Credit: iStock

Abu Dhabi: Long viewed as a viable possibility, telemedicine has now become an active reality in the UAE as the country works to limit its coronavirus outbreak.

From large medical providers to individual hospitals and pharmacies, health facilities across the country have enabled systems that allow residents to consult doctors and pharmacists from their homes. More importantly, these consults are mostly covered by insurance providers, thus making telemedicine an affordable and convenient option as residents avoid going out.

Alisha Moopen

“We have noted a marked increase in patients requesting and accessing telemedicine consultations over the past month, with over 200 consultations per day and a daily growth of 15 to 20 per cent almost on a daily basis. This is extremely useful in chronic care management, especially to safeguard from COVID-19 at-risk people with comorbidities like diabetes or hypertension,’ Alisha Moopen, deputy managing director at Aster DM Healthcare, told Gulf News.

Dr Ahmad Salah, medical director of the Prime Healthcare Group’s corporate services, said the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed for a practical demo of telemedicine.

Dr Ahmad Salah

“Earlier, people were reluctant to use telemedicine for remote consulting, but now we are doing nearly 150 appointments a day on our own digital platform that is run through Microsoft Teams. We have chronic patients who are our regulars, and ask to refill their prescriptions. We have their electronic records and after checking on them we are able to send them an online prescription,” Dr Salah said.

Greater acceptance

Telemedicine itself is not new to the UAE. Mubadala Healthcare launched the Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Centre in early 2016, with access for patients with Daman insurance, and other region-wide services like Mobile Doctors have been available since 2014. What marks the COVID-19 growth is the greater acceptance by patients and insurance providers alike.

Dr Salah said telemedicine charges are lower, at almost half that of a traditional visit, and this is an aspect patients welcome.

As can be expected, patients normally request consults in frequently-used outpatient medical departments.

According to Dr Salah, the most requested consults are follow-ups on chronic conditions like asthma, regular checks for pregnancies and gynaecological concerns, and acute cases where patients have developed a cough, cold or fever.

“So far, [Aster has] seen the greatest number of telemedicine consults in internal medicine, endocrinology, gastroenterology, pulmonology, gynaecology and paediatrics, with the majority of enquiries about repeat prescriptions, the treatment of long-term ailments like diabetes, and [childcare],” Moopen added. The group, which currently operates four hospitals in the country, along with 89 clinics and 209 pharmacies, also offers free COVID-19 advisories.

Virtual checks on video

Given the widespread availability of video on messaging platforms, most providers today incorporate video checks for patients.

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, for instance, allows patients to ‘visit’ their doctors on their smartphones via a dedicated app. Patients have to download the hospital’s Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi Health Portal app, and then access a video conference link for a virtual visit. Since March 22, the hospital has completed more than 10,700 virtual consults.

Laboratory testing

Providers have also found ways to incorporate laboratory tests.

Dr Anthony Oekeke

“If a chronic patient requires a laboratory test before we refill his prescription, we offer home care services. The technicians collect the blood samples from home and the reports are then shared electronically with us,” said Dr Antony Oekeke, internal medicine specialist at Al Zahra Hospital, Dubai.

Similarly, Aster offers a ‘Lab at Home’ initiative that conducts blood tests for patients at home.

Pharmacy deliveries

And with the growth of the sector, the introduction of home deliveries for prescription medicine has been only natural. The majority of providers that offer telemedicine have also built in this element, including Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, Prime Healthcare and Al Zahra.

Abu Dhabi-based UEMedical group, which operates the Danat Al Emarat Hospital, the Moorfields Eye Hospital and HealthPlus clinics, also recently launched its free prescription medication delivery app, Wasfati.

COVID-19 spurs sector growth

Other healthcare providers have also ramped up their telemedicine offerings in light of the movement restrictions posed by COVID-19.

Mediclinic began offering consultations in April for patients in Dubai, and expects to expand to other emirates shortly, a spokesperson said. The group allows patients to consult a family medicine doctor on-demand via a web-based video platform, and plans to launch a mobile app soon. Patients with chronic illnesses can also request medication deliveries.

Complex care challenges

This is not to say that challenges do not remain in treating patients remotely. Video platforms allow patients to share more detailed accounts of their concerns, but they cannot make up for in-person consults in some cases.

“Important tests like X-rays and CT scans also cannot be performed off-site. So although telemedicine has some excellent benefits, I believe it cannot completely replace the need to visit a hospital or clinic. Rather, it should be viewed as a complimentary service for patients who require less complex care,” Moopen said.

Patient testimonials

While regular telemedicine consultations have come as a boon for all, mental health patients are especially relieved at being able to continue therapy in the privacy of their own homes.

“I have been consulting them from the start of the year for help with my anxiety disorder. I suffer from high-level anxiety, which affects me day to day and causes relationship issues,” said a 29-year-old male patient in Dubai who works in real estate. He consults experts at the German Neuroscience Centre.

“As the social distancing regulations started to get stricter, I really didn’t want to stop the sessions because they were helping me to regain control over my anxiety. While I was open to the idea of virtual counselling because I had seen how online meetings were being used to overcome the challenges of social distancing at work, I was still a bit sceptical about how well it would work for something as personal this. Since staring my online sessions however, I no longer have any doubts and I have found them to be very effective; I am still getting the same level of support and I am so glad the clinic is able to provide it,” he said.

“Moving forward, even after the current rules change, I think that having the online option would encourage more people to seek help for mental health issues as it can seem like an easier first step to take in asking for help,” he added.

Dr Alfred Gull

“As healthcare providers, it is vital that we can maintain the continuum of care for patients and ensure they continue to get the support they need during times like these. It is incredibly stressful for a patient to feel that their sessions could be interrupted and it can definitely have a negative impact on their condition. We have seen a great response from patients who feel that the virtual consultations are working well, and we are also now running our regular support groups online,” said Alfred Gull, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre.

The Centre earlier this week held its first online support group for teenagers, and found that the number of virtual attendees was even higher than at regular face-to-face groups.

“This could be due to the added pressures people are facing at the moment, but I also think that the virtual setting helps to make mental health support even more accessible in many ways. There is no reason why people can’t get the same high-quality experience and we are even able to practice some of the most effective interactive therapy techniques online, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” Gull said.

-With additional inputs by Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Senior Reporter