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Novel coronavirus: Surge in patients consulting doctors through video calls to avoid clinics, hospitals

SINGAPORE — More patients are consulting their doctors via video calls to avoid clinics and hospitals as they are worried that they will be exposed to the novel coronavirus. In response to the rising demand, more doctors are signing up to offer these services.

Novel coronavirus: Surge in patients consulting doctors through video calls to avoid clinics, hospitals

A doctor giving a patient an online consultation.

SINGAPORE — More patients are consulting their doctors via video calls to avoid clinics and hospitals as they are worried that they will be exposed to the novel coronavirus. In response to the rising demand, more doctors are signing up to offer these services.

Other services proving popular during the outbreak include home visits by doctors, including callouts by Chinese tourists who have quarantined themselves in hotel rooms, the service operators said.

Providers of the service known as telehealth or telemedicine told TODAY on Tuesday (Feb 11) that demand for video consultations with doctors had soared up to 70 per cent since the outbreak started.

Telehealth services are online platforms that allow users to consult their doctors through a video call. The patient’s medication will be delivered to them later the same day.

Some of these service providers have a team of in-house doctors while others allow general practitioners here to sign up and consult patients through the telehealth firm’s online application.

The consultations can last from five to 30 minutes and cost about S$10 to S$40.

A spokesperson for Doctor Anywhere, one such service provider, said that the firm had conducted 70 per cent more video consultations in the past month due to the outbreak, as patients choose to stay home instead of visiting a clinic.

“With the outbreak, the public has been advised by Ministry of Health (MOH) to avoid crowded areas and stay at home if they feel unwell,” the spokesperson said.

The avoidance of clinics and hospitals has also been observed by Speedoc, a mobile clinic that attends to patients at their preferred locations. The firm said that business has doubled since the outbreak.

Ms Serene Cai, co-founder of Speedoc, said: “Many patients call us and tell us upfront that they would not like to visit a clinic or a hospital.”

More patients are asking for elective procedures such as stitches removal and testosterone injections to be administered at their homes — services which are usually done at clinics or hospitals, she added.

Before the virus outbreak, the team was attending mostly to patients such as the elderly who may have mobility problems and face difficulty leaving their homes.

The increasing number of patients avoiding clinics also includes Chinese tourists who had quarantined themselves for fear that they might pose as a risk to the public, having travelled from China at a time when they could have contracted the virus.

Ms Cai said: “Our doctors have seen a number of them in their hotel rooms. Some Chinese tourists also request that we deliver medicine for high blood pressure to them to reduce their exposure to the public.”

Ms Savina Chai, 26, a regular user of WhiteCoat, another telehealth consultation service, said that she would prefer to consult a doctor via video than visit a clinic, especially during this time.

“I usually have small problems such as a cough or runny nose, so I would not want to go to a clinic with lots of germs and (people carrying) infections. I don’t want to carry these germs back to my home or the office,” the business consultant said.

In response to the increased demand, more doctors are applying to offer their medical services on telehealth mobile applications.

Dr Siaw Tung Yeng, co-founder of MaNaDr, another telehealth service provider, told TODAY that he has seen 30 per cent more general practitioners opting to provide consultations on its platform in the past two weeks.

“Previously, many doctors preferred consulting patients in person and were resistant to video consultations (on the app). However, now that there is a virus outbreak and more patients are unwilling to visit the clinics, there is an increase in the number of doctors asking to provide their services on it.” 

HELPING TO PREVENT SPREAD OF DISEASES

Dr Snehal Patel, chief executive officer and co-founder of MyDoc, another teleheath service provider, said in a media release that video consultations can prevent the spread of illnesses to the public and doctors.

“(Video consultations) allow clinical professionals to perform an immediate triage assessment without the patient going out into public areas, thus removing the risk of exposure to members of the public as well as the doctor during a face-to-face consultation,” he said.

Triage refers to ranking the priority of patient’s treatments based on the severity of their condition.

“For patients that meet MOH’s suspect case criteria, their doctor can notify the MOH surveillance officer to arrange for an ambulance team to pick up the patient for isolation and testing, and advise the patient to practise precautionary measures,” he added.

PREPARED TO MEET RISING DEMAND

The spokesperson for Doctor Anywhere said that its operations are ready to meet the growing demand: “Our doctors and operations are well-equipped to deal with the current situation, and we have stepped up our efforts on all fronts to be ready for any changes.” 

Mr Justin Chow, WhiteCoat’s chief marketing officer, said that the firm's doctors are working more shifts to handle the 20 to 25 per cent increase in the number of video consultations during the outbreak.

A spokesperson for MyDoc said that it is monitoring the outbreak closely. “We have the capability to expand our services such as virtual consultations nationwide and across borders, should there arise a need for additional resources to meet the demand.” 

For some patients, the convenience of telehealth services is a major attraction regardless of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Benedict Wong, 37, an IT consultant, said that convenience was a major factor prompting him to switch to using telehealth services. He prefers video consultations to visiting a clinic because of the time spent waiting to see a doctor.

“Given that my job needs me to travel around the island, I may not be in a fixed location throughout the day. Teleconsulting makes it so much more convenient for me to see a doctor and have my medication delivered to me wherever I am, instead of wasting hours at a clinic,” he said.

Still, there are some patients who are undeterred by the virus outbreak and are willing to visit clinics.

Madam Rachel Tan, 48, a homemaker, said that she will continue to consult her doctor in person because she finds that the experience offers her greater assurance.

“I will wear a mask when I visit the clinic. Also, I believe that enough precautions have been taken by the clinic to reduce the risk of transmissions.

“I use the app to consult my doctor only in times of emergency when my children are sick and the clinic is closed in the middle of the night,” the mother of three said.

Related topics

doctor app medical consultation telemedicine coronavirus Wuhan virus

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