Thoneshan Naidoo, Principal Officer, Medshield Medical Scheme

Through telemedicine innovations such as SmartCare, the medical scheme is proving that technology can make healthcare more widely accessible, affordable and convenient.

The SA digital ecosystem is becoming ever smarter, embracing all the benefits and excitement that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) holds.

Medical schemes have to move beyond just providing medical assurance to become innovators in this ecosystem and let their members live happy, healthy lives.

Medshield Medical Scheme is always looking for innovative ways of giving more value to its members. It aims to strike a balance between affordability, high-quality care and convenient access to healthcare using technology – and that is precisely how it developed SmartCare.

Innovative success so far

SmartCare is a dual-purpose platform that can enable physical and virtual medical consultations. It may seem mundane now, but in 2019, when people did not know about virtual consultations, it was ground-breaking.

Human beings are social creatures. We like to see a doctor face to face. SmartCare therefore had to blend both worlds, offering some face-to-face consultations but also embracing 4IR by providing a digital experience.

SmartCare-enabled clinics are located inside pharmacies and operate according to the hours of the pharmacy. This means Medshield members have access to qualified healthcare providers after hours (up to 7pm on weekdays) and, notably, over weekends.

A nurse conducts the physical exam and will contact a GP if required through the use of VideoMed technology.

A pharmacy with SmartCare-enabled facilities then becomes a convenient one-stop shop: once members have seen a nurse or doctor, they hand in their scripts and immediately receive their medication, all in about 45 minutes.

Furthermore, by providing an unlimited number of nurse consultations for all its members, across all its plans, Medshield has helped reduce the number of emergency-room visits to hospitals, including over weekends.

Qualified nurses have undertaken roughly 58% of general examination consultations, meaning patients are adequately treated. These consultation included prophylactic preventive measures, contraceptive management and the self-management of over-the-counter medicine.

GPs have conducted the other 42% of consultations, usually when members need treatment for acute upper respiratory infections or some sort of essential primary hypertension.

Overall, six out of 10 people were therefore adequately helped by a nurse.

Why is the SmartCare solution so innovative? SA has roughly five doctors for every 100,000 people. We have to balance our resources to give patients easy access to healthcare professionals. There is an even smaller number of specialists, so we must optimise the healthcare value chain accordingly.

Medshield has continued to make the most of telemedicine in different ways.

In 2020, it offered WhatsApp Doc as a free medical advisory service. If members were not sure whether they had to test for Covid-19, they could use the WhatsApp line to consult a doctor on symptoms, self-isolation, PCR tests and so forth.

More than 43% of the WhatsApp Doc consultations were about Covid-19 advice; only 7% were not related to Covid-19.

In 2021, Medshield took things a step further by launching Virtual Family Practitioner Consultations: members simply fill in an online form and can then see a GP from wherever they are via their smartphone, tablet or computer. The consultation does not require any travelling time or loss of work hours, and members can still access quality care and treatment.

More citizens still need access

SA has a world-class private healthcare system on a par with some developed countries. We have quick access to doctors and specialists, some of the best health policies and the latest technology.

However, the country has been slow to fully embrace 4IR in healthcare, which has already become an integral part of several global healthcare systems. Only 9-million South Africans have access to private healthcare at present. We need to expand that to more people.

The challenges include travel costs, loss of income due to lost work hours, language barriers, gaps in the quality of care, or a lack of access to the latest technology in rural areas.

However, this is also where the opportunities are. Technology can democratise private healthcare, making it more widely accessible and affordable. SmartCare is proof that technology can lower the barriers to high-quality private healthcare and save people precious time.

The pool is still vast — SA has about 60-million smartphone subscriptions; wearable technology is continuously evolving; and broadband spectrum has been increased.

While digital healthcare is not a substitute for a physical consultation, it is a complementary enhancement and, ultimately, a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

Published on TimesLive on 30 November 2021. To view online, click here.

Thoneshan Naidoo is the Principle Officer of Medshield Medical Scheme