In photo during the BusinessWorld Insights' two-part online series themed "The Impact of Technology on the Healthcare Sector," with the topic "Technology's Key Role in Public Health Innovation," are (clockwise, from top left) moderator Arjay Balinbin of BusinessWorld; and panellists Mar-Len Abigail Binay, Makati City mayor; Dr. Raymond Francis Sarmiento, director of the National Telehealth Center; Jay Fajardo, co-founder and CEO of Medifi; and Patrick Nico Alcoseba, vice-president and head of ICT Business at PLDT Enterprise.

By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran, Special Features Writer

While the overall damage COVID-19 has done to the country remains untold, the good things that have come in response to it can already be seen.

Policy makers and industry leaders have already seen the importance of supporting the country’s frontline workers and healthcare professionals. The rapid rise of digitalization has helped both the public and private sectors in their efforts towards supporting vulnerable communities, and has even opened avenues for Filipinos to make extra income during the crisis.

Technology has played and continues to play a major role in the development of such changes. Mar-Len Abigail Binay, mayor of Makati City, said during a session of BusinessWorld Insights that Makati relies heavily on new technologies for its COVID-19 response initiatives such as the locally-developed COVID-19 case tracker, the city’s “U Make Makati Safe” contact tracing website, and the GIS Mapping for the city’s vaccine inventory.

“As a champion of smart and adaptive governance, I believe that the impact of technology in the healthcare sector is crucial to preventing local transmission and mitigating the socio-economic effects of the crisis,” she said.

The second and final session of BusinessWorld Insights’ two-part online series themed “The Impact of Technology on the Healthcare Sector”, with the topic “Technology’s Key Role in Public Health Innovation”, aimed to show how the public and private sectors continue to collaborate for a better and modernized public health system in the country.

Ms. Binay pointed out that innovations such as a health information management system and telemedicine and telehealth platforms could address pressing concerns with public health.

Telemedicine and telehealth allow physicians and healthcare professionals to practice medicine using electronic and telecommunications technologies to deliver care remotely. A physician in one location can use telehealth to deliver care to a patient at a distant site through the internet, therefore giving more people access to medical care and advice.

“Even before the pandemic, we already saw the need for telemedicine to address the issue of the city’s scarce resource of doctors. We were a little bit prepared when the pandemic hit, but not as much as I would have wanted,” she said.

The issue of a lack of doctors and other healthcare professionals has been a prevailing one, yet it seems that only when the pandemic hit did everyone realize the gravity of the problem. Jay Fajardo, co-founder and CEO of telemedicine platform Medifi, noted that as of April 2020, the Philippines had a ratio of about six doctors per 10,000 patients.

“When we started Medifi in 2015, we set out to help prevailing problems that the Philippines experiences with regards to healthcare, particularly access to doctors. The ratio of doctors to patients in our country is very low, and we see Medifi as a huge force multiplier and reach multiplier for physicians and their patients,” he said.

Medifi is a telemedicine platform that enables patients to remotely connect with their doctors and conduct secure and meaningful medical consultations on their mobile phone. Yet before the pandemic, Mr. Fajardo admitted that they had trouble convincing doctors to use their platform. Only when COVID-19 forced the country into a lockdown last March did its pool of healthcare professionals grow from about 425 to more than 3,000.

“Last year in March, our platform played a heightened role because of the quarantine. Not only were patients having a hard time going to the clinics because of the quarantine, but doctors themselves were looking for a way to continue their practice,” he said.

Medifi, he further noted, aimed to fulfill a triage role to filter out as much as 70% of avoidable visits to the hospitals and clinics to avoid the overloading of the public healthcare system. Currently, the platform serves more than 37,000 patients.

“Technology and public health are not often mentioned in the same breath and yet technology adoption and economic growth have become more correlated,” Patrick Nico Alcoseba, vice-president and head of ICT Business at PLDT Enterprise, said.

Mr. Alcoseba said that while there are a number of foundational aspects to health technologies, what makes the biggest positive impact are the ones that enhance the capability of patients, doctors, healthcare providers, and other institutions to connect and communicate, along with technologies that can multiply limited resources across geographies.

“Since technology has the power to multiply benefits across the entire ecosystem and health tech is a growing area of importance across the globe managing the health of the nation, it has become very intertwined with managing the health of its economy.”

Dr. Raymond Francis Sarmiento, director of the National Telehealth Center, further pointed out while technology furthers innovation in the healthcare industry, it falls to the government to put forward new standards in the implementation of such technologies.

“The pandemic has brought about challenges. But that’s not to say we have been idle on the public health innovation and health information technology front,” he said.

He noted that National Telehealth Center has been looking for ways to elevate the country’s telemedicine practices, working with the Department of Health in issuing telemedicine practice guidelines. The organization is also busy collecting pertinent health information data from vaccine distribution, contact tracing and testing results to further the development of the public healthcare system.

“In the past few months, we have been concentrating on elevating our current status in terms of vaccine ICT systems and we hope to be able to push forward innovations and technologies that will play a crucial role in terms of integrating all of the data so that we could recover as one and heal as one,” Dr. Sarmiento said.

BusinessWorld Insights: “Technology’s Key Role in Public Health Innovation” was presented by BusinessWorld Publishing Corporation, with sponsors PLDT Enterprise and Siemens Healthineers.