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The use of telehealth in South Africa has been limited to date, since the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) required doctors to have face-to-face consultations with their patients and telemedicine was meant to be an add-on, not a replacement for consultations.
The statutory body has since eased its guidelines following the lockdown, to allow for virtual consultations between doctors and patients, without having to meet in person.
It has also changed that term "telemedicine" to "telehealth" to include other practitioners like psychiatrists.
For Medical scheme Momentum Health, the easing of regulations has resulted in the growth of its telehealth business, which could previously only provide advice, not consultations.
Its Hello Doctor platform has seen an increase in patient interactions with doctors, from about 4 000 in May to 15 000 in June, according to its 2020 financial update.
"Legally, a year ago it was very difficult for us to grow Hello Doctor, because the regulator and the doctors' councils were not very keen on telemedicine or any digital health services at all. In fact up until the start of lockdown, the legislation didn't actually allow for it," said Momentum Health's executive head for marketing and distribution Damian McHugh.
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Momentum's platform is available via an App or through USSD for people who don't have smartphones or data.
McHugh said although some doctors have raised concerns that they will not be making as much money as they do through normal consultations, meeting their clients virtually is much better since it comes with less overhead costs.
He added that he hopes the regulations could become the new normal for South Africa after Covid-19.
McHugh said Momentum charges between R250 and R270 for its service, while-in person consultations can vary from R280, excluding medication, to R380 including medication. Some other practitioners charge more.
Telemedicine has also been beneficial for people with chronic conditions who can't risk visiting their doctor during the pandemic.
Guidepost, a telehealth platform, connects its more than 15 000 users to practitioners through voice calls, video calls and WhatsApp.
Richard Johnson, COO of Guidepost said: "We have had our busiest months ever during the lockdown. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown conditions have made digital healthcare services, such as telemedicine, the only option for many people, driving rapid adoption and use of our services," said Johnson.
He added that the convenience and lower cost of digital healthcare will change the way people access healthcare beyond Covid-19 and is likely to drive them to consult with their doctors more regularly.
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