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Among other industries severely affected by the global health crisis, the Philippine healthcare sector had to adjust to continue its services in order to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. It became more challenging to accommodate patients with COVID-19 and those who do not yet are carrying other critical cases.

The health sector, nonetheless, saw opportunities to improve health services and the state of the health sector; and telehealth became one of the solutions to address such challenges.

Back in April 2020, the Department of Health (DoH) and the National Privacy Commission have partnered to develop a framework for telemedicine services in a bid to improve access to health services during the Enhanced Community Quarantine at that time. The Joint Memorandum Circular formed by the two agencies stated that medical consultations over the phone, chat, short messaging service, and other audio and visual-conferencing platforms are considered telemedicine services in the country.

Also, by that time, National Capital Region residents have been served by free telemedicine hotlines, in partnership with several players in the health sector with telemedicine services.

Since then, the number of teleconsultations has increased. As government technology company OpenGov stated in an article on their website, there had been over 70,000 virtual sessions offered by telemedicine in the country since the development of the telemedicine framework.

The telemedicine market value is predicted to increase over the next six years as digitalization continues to rise in the sector. According to healthcare-focused market research firm Insights10, the telemedicine market has “a double-digit billion-dollar market value, and is forecast to grow significantly during the next ten years, reaching triple-digit revenue values.”

The DoH has collaborated with telemedicine providers such as CloudPC, HealthNowPH, SeeYouDoc, TelAventusMD, Check E-consult, and TrinityCare, which provides online doctor consultations and an easy way to buy medicines online hassle-free.

Other healthcare applications offering medical consultations, diagnosis, and healthcare assistance include KonsultaMD, Medifi, HealthNow, AIDE, DOCPH, Yo-Vivo Health, and Lifeline, which can be accessed via hotlines, websites, and mobile applications.

Such telemedicine platforms enable patients to save time from waiting in lines at medical facilities and conduct a virtual consultation with qualified healthcare professionals in just a few minutes, with a prescription administered as early as the following day. Telemedicine also provides a safe platform for easy access to the medical documents of their patients.

Earlier in March, a recently concluded panel discussion on digital healthcare transformation conducted by the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DoST-PCHRD), digital experts shared their thoughts on digitalization, opportunities, challenges, and the future of digital healthcare in the country.

The discussion highlighted that the misconception that digitalization will destroy more opportunities has already been debunked, as many sectors observed that shifting digitally has boosted work operations and productivity, even in the healthcare sector.

Citing the Digital Health Index of the Philippines, University of the Philippines College of Medicine Professor Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan shared that in terms of the workforce, there is a need to “integrate digital health into the health professions curriculum so that a wide range of jobs will be created and opportunities will widen.”

However, Dr. Isip-Tan emphasized that digital healthcare is yet to improve as challenges like connectivity and accessibility remains to be dealt.

“For telemedicine, we were always told that we have a limited bandwidth. During the pandemic, the [Philippine General Hospital] was still able to provide services using mobile phones because our patients didn’t have Wi-Fi. These lessons learned about teleconsultations will be able to improve the healthcare system,” she added.

For Usec. Jocelle Batapa-Sigue, undersecretary for the ICT Industry Development at the Department of Information and Communications Technology, connectivity, innovation, and inclusion are the three most important factors in improving the digital healthcare ecosystem in the Philippines.

“Let’s include women, persons with disabilities, and senior citizens. I’m actually very much excited about where we are at now in terms of digitalizing the healthcare system because of the advent of a lot of technologies, which makes it really easy for us to design applications and systems,” Ms. Batapa-Sigue explained.

With the development of telehealth over the years, health services can be done virtually and more easily. With a constant flow of the right investments and approach, nonetheless, telehealth solutions can be further improved towards an enhanced quality and access of digital healthcare for all Filipinos. — Angela Kiara S. Brillantes