Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, routine doctor visits have become an unnerving task for many patients. This has led to a surge in patients leveraging telemedicine services in Asia. In Malaysia, DoctorOnCall also started to breathe new life into Malaysia’s telemedicine landscape by teaming up with the health ministry to develop a customised virtual health advisory platform that would address public concerns about Covid-19.
It is worth noting that even before the current pandemic hit, telemedicine was on the upswing. Driven by a shortage of medical professionals and rising costs, several telemedicine providers started appearing in Malaysia’s healthcare scene to provide remote services, especially for low-risk, high-volume clinical tasks, such as GP consultations for minor ailments and prescription refills.
Telemedicine can not only help manage the sector’s talent shortage by freeing up resources, it also can make healthcare more accessible to patients with mobility issues, or those residing in rural areas. Increased accessibility is also key to driving early intervention and diagnosis, resulting in better long-term patient outcomes and lower public health costs.
Pushing telemedicine into the mainstream would be one of the most transformative changes to the healthcare system in Malaysia, helping to streamline operations and further democratise medical services. However, little headway has been made in the country until the pandemic struck.
How can healthcare players reignite this revolution in the healthcare delivery, and ensure telemedicine’s success beyond Covid-19?
Securing Patient Buy-in
From the patient’s perspective, there are plenty of practical and emotional considerations before turning to online medical services. First and foremost, patients must be aware of the services offered and feel confident that the quality of care they get will not be compromised. Providers must also educate patients about the services and treatments that are ideally suited for telemedicine vs. those where an in-person clinical assessment is crucial.
Second, telemedicine services must be easy for patients to use. Once again, the onus is on healthcare providers to offer services that cater to a wide base of users with differing digital ability. This particularly applies to older patients, who have the most to gain from access to remote healthcare services, but also tend to have the lowest levels of digital literacy.
Third, telemedicine needs to be financially accessible for patients, and they need to know and fully understand the payment and insurance policies surrounding the service. To facilitate this, telemedicine and digital health platform companies should look into partnering with insurance companies in Malaysia so as to expand their reach, while making sure that basic medical services are a viable option for those who need it.
Finally, to ensure greater trust in telemedicine, patients must also be assured that their medical data is being stored and used securely, and in compliance with local privacy legislation. Healthcare institutions must not only investigate best practices for safeguarding patient information, but also communicate this data security commitment to patients.
Driving Success by Getting to Know Patients Better
In order to get patients onboard with telemedicine, providers will have to reimagine the way they manage basic tasks.
During an in-person appointment, for example, the registration process allows professionals to pull patient records, medical history, drug allergies and more, which is pivotal in ensuring high-quality care. A similar process needs to be set up for e-consultations so that doctors can be sure of who they are treating, even though the patient is not in the same room.
This is where Know Your Patient (KYP) processes come in. Similar to the banking industry’s Know Your Customer process, which enables banks to verify a customer’s identity, assess risk and determine appropriate product offers, KYP is essential for the safe and accurate delivery of digital healthcare services.
Traditionally, the approach to verifying patients’ identities has been to require them to show their IDs over a video call. However, this approach makes it difficult for healthcare administrators to discern between a government-issued ID and a fake one. Most practitioners are not trained to identify fake documentation. Assuming that the ID is authentic, doctors may not be able to assess whether the person pictured on the ID matches the one on the call — especially if the photo is dated.
This is why sophisticated technologies, such as facial biometrics and AI, need to be leveraged for identity verification. This will allow KYP to be the first line of defence against fraudsters who use stolen or fake identities to see a doctor, get access to controlled substances or file unlawful insurance claims.
KYP will also enable telemedicine providers to streamline the online process of delivering care — from registration to scheduling appointments to filling and delivering prescriptions — while complying with existing regulatory guidelines. KYP provides a high level of identity assurance, allowing doctors to conduct teleconsultation securely and confidently. KYP can also effectively verify third parties, for example when young children must have a parent or guardian present during consultations or to purchase medication.
Supporting Innovation Through Progressive Regulation
As with any new industry, governments and market innovators need to work together to better understand the benefits and limitations of telemedicine. This includes establishing best practices and standards of care that prioritise patient welfare and security, but also encourage innovation and ease-of-use.
Malaysia was one of the first countries in Asia to chart this path, with a telemedicine blueprint that was conceived in 1997. The blueprint describes the government’s vision for the future of Malaysian healthcare, outlines the role that technology can play in achieving that vision, and serves as a guide to its implementation process. However, with the rise of telemedicine providers being few and far between, this vision is yet to be realised.
Now, the pandemic has given it fresh impetus. It is crucial for everyone in the healthcare ecosystem to start reimagining this blueprint for the post-pandemic world, in collaboration with the public sector. Only then can telemedicine deliver on its greatest benefit — increased accessibility to medical care for everyone across Malaysia, while optimising resources.