South African health professionals can now have video and telephone consultations with patients without seeing them face-to-face. This is one of the new regulations amended by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) in an effort to prevent health professionals from contracting COVID-19.

This comes after the medical profession raised concerns with the council that practitioners face an increased risk if they consult face-to-face with COVID-19 patients.

In the video below, doctors say that they are worried about contacting COVID-19 from patients:

The Health Professions Council of South Africa says it realised that the previous regulations limited professionals who wanted to increase access to healthcare to patients, without physical contact. The previous regulations allowed doctors to have an online consultation with patients whom they’ve treated previously and have their health history.

The new guidelines are not limited to just doctors. They’ve been expanded to include other health professionals like psychologists. They allow first-time consultations on the phone or video.

Head of Medical Services Africa in the Medical Protection Society Doctor Graham Howarth says the HPCSA has been quite conservative in respect to telemedicine.

“They are very welcome. I think they were very slow in coming. The Health Professions Council has been understandably quite conservative with respect to telemedicine. As you know, many patients in SA, particularly the healthy, don’t have regular GPs and also if people are worried about relatively minor issues, then they call the doctor. Doctors have to be careful because they would be judged against a face-to-face consultation essentially so they have to be very careful because it’s different.”

The South African Medical Association (SAMA) also welcomes the amended regulations, but advises its members to do video consultations instead of telephone consultations in order to get better evaluation of the patient’s condition.

SAMA Spokesperson Doctor Angelique Coetzee says doctors need to protect themselves by getting good clinical notes during the consultation.

“The one thought is you know, it should be open to everyone on a regular basis and not only during COVID-19. And then there’s another school of thought that says it should be only during COVID-19. Also from SAMA side … SAMA would advise our members – especially if it’s a new member that you are seeing for the first time – to rather do it on a Skype-type of media and not a telephonic one where you can’t see a patient on the other side.”

Acting CEO at the HPCSA, Doctor Munyadziwa Kwinda, says HPCSA says the amendments are also in support of government’s response to COVID-19 of ensuring social distancing.

“This pandemic is really opening us to new opportunities that we never thought of before. We are going to be exploring from the lessons learnt during the pandemic, how can we do things differently. More guidelines will have to be provided in terms of the different professions. Other professions tele-health is a no-no, whereas for others it can be accommodated. If we were to consider this it needs to be a thorough work from a regulator’s point of view.”

Doctor Kwinda says it is crucial for health professionals and medical aid schemes to be clear on the pricing for the virtual consultations.

“And one has also seen some of the medical schemes publishing the tariffs under the tele-health scenario, but what we expect practitioners to do is to inform their patients how much it’s going to cost them to go through that consultation like any other consultation. So, as much as they have a duty to inform their patients when they come to their practices physically, they also have a duty to inform their patients about the cost of services through the tele-health platform.”

These stakeholders say they are open to discussing expanding tele-health to beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, provided the experience is positive and a success.

In the video below, SA health professionals’ safety under the spotlight amid the COVID-19 pandemic: