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Augustine Amusu, Chief Information Officer at Mediclinic Middle East, hits the nail on the head when he says there’s nothing like a crisis to concentrate the minds. Although the tech and regulatory approvals for telemedicine were in place, it wasn’t a priority for most of the private hospitals until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. American Hospital Dubai was the only one that had a teleconsultation service, which was launched in January. But when Covid-19 forced the industry to move to a physically distanced, contactless world, others were quick to act.

“The Covid-19 situation provided the impetus for many healthcare organisations to accelerate their approach to telehealth,” says Amusu. Within a short period, new technology was deployed, plug-in solutions were implemented or old was tweaked and innovated upon to help health providers extend their care right into people’s homes.

“A number of measures were adopted such as upgrading our network bandwidth to cater for additional demand; configuration of our Electronic Medical Record Systems to accommodate new pathways, billing codes and clinical documentation; procuring high-definition cameras and headsets where required in order to provide the best service possible – new solutions need to fit into an evolving systems architecture and this had to be reviewed,” explains Amusu.

While Mediclinic Middle East opted for Health at Hand, a digital teleconsultation platform, Aster DM Healthcare used its technology landscape and innovated to provide telemedicine. “Time was of essence in this case and we knew that there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Veneeth Purushotaman, Group Chief Information Officer at Aster DM Healthcare. “The technology landscape at Aster DM Healthcare included the entire Microsoft Office 365 stack and we were already using the O365 cloud along with Teams for our collaboration needs within the organisation. The hospitals have a Hospital Information System (HIS) hosted on Azure and the clinics have another HIS being deployed on Alibaba Cloud.

“We offered teleconsultation by building a solution using Microsoft Teams platform, which enables HIPAA, GDPR and SOC compliance, interfaced the HIS using their API to allow the patient to book a slot, complete the consultation online, make a co-payment where applicable and even have their medicines delivered home. At our Medcare hospitals and clinics we implemented a Cisco-based platform to carry out teleconsultation.”

Zulekha Hospital was one of the early movers in the field and had obtained the approvals for launching telemedicine before the pandemic. So it was able to launch the service at the beginning of the lockdown itself. “People can book telephonic or video appointments using any of the eight communication channels including the call centre, website, app, WhatsApp for Business platform, WhatsApp via the website and social media pages, web chat and Facebook messenger,” says Aliasgar Bohari, IT Director at Zulekha Hospital

For Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, its new platform for virtual visits has enabled thousands of patients to consult their doctor on a smartphone or mobile device. “We are increasingly able to monitor a patient’s health beyond the walls of the hospital, such as with our remote heart monitoring programme that allows patients to return to their lives and be observed for changes in their condition,” adds CEO Dr Rakesh Suri.

Remote monitoring and provision of continuous remote care, or telehealth, are the next steps in the progression for telemedicine. American Hospital Dubai too considers telemedicine as the foundation for future remote monitoring of patients.

However for now, UAE hospitals are working hard to stay on top of things while new questions about telemedicine crop up. “Delivering telemedicine requires cross-functional teams of colleagues to meet regularly, review and advance to the next steps while communicating with all stakeholders,” explains Amusu. “As we deploy there remains an open question: do our customers prefer an on-demand or a scheduled teleconsultation service – we actively support both models, however we are always willing to learn and adapt to our patients’ preferences.”

And for telemedicine to continue smoothly in this market, it needs support from another quarter: the insurance sector. “The only potential roadblock is the lack of clarity and buy-in from insurance payors on teleconsultation and that is something which needs to be addressed and resolved,” says Purushotaman.