When you’re feeling weak, feverish, or prone to sudden bathroom dashes, you may feel more inclined to curl up in bed than to drag yourself to the nearest hospital.
But you might not have to face that journey, as a growing number of companies in the UAE are providing a means to consult a doctor over the phone or by video.
With the prevalence of lifestyle diseases placing strains on hospitals, and with insurance premiums rocketing, telemedicine can provide a convenient and less expensive way for those with non-life-threatening symptoms to get some advice.
The Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Centre offers a 24-hour service, via a toll-free number or TeleMed app, that connects Thiqa and Daman Enhanced insurance cardholders anywhere in the UAE with a GP for free – saving the patient the fee that accompanies a hospital visit.
“The service has really grown in the two years since we launched,” says the centre’s Emirati director, Dr Sameera Al Obeidli. “What’s interesting is that back then, the service was more welcomed by expat communities, who were aware of similar services in their home countries. But the uptake has actually been much larger from the Emirati community.”
Amna Al Azdi recently called the centre when she started feeling mildly feverish after returning from an adventure-fuelled holiday in Jordan. “Within 15 minutes of calling and giving a nurse my details, a doctor had called me back,” says the 24-year-old Emirati, who works as an office administrator in Abu Dhabi. “He told me that my body was just reacting to all the activity I’d been doing, and also readjusting to the difference in climate between Jordan and the UAE. He told me to take fresh juices and water, which I did, and I started to feel better.”
Al Azdi says without the service, she would’ve booked a hospital appointment. “My fever wasn’t serious, but I wanted to know how to deal with it. Speaking to a doctor over the phone gave me peace of mind.”
Kelly Al Muhairi, a Welsh-Emirati, used the service two weeks ago when her 2-year-old son had a raspy cough. “I spoke to a doctor immediately with no wait. The service was amazing and the doctor called me back after a couple of hours to check on my son. I’d use it again when concerned about my sons or myself, out of normal hours of Healthpoint [hospital].”
As the weather cools, Al Obeidli says the majority of the calls her team of 10 doctors and nine nurses receives are from those suffering from colds, sore throats and asthma, which she attributes to the change in weather.
“Then there are these campaigns going on, like the breast cancer month in October. Many people call to find out whether they’re in the high-risk group.”
Al Obeidli says 50 to 60 per cent of complaints are solved over the phone, and those that can’t be are referred to a hospital doctor. She says sometimes the service acts as the push needed to encourage people who are doctor-shy to get their symptoms checked out.
Whereas Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Centre provides general GP care, the Dubai-based company HeyDoc! has an app that connects users to specialists in eight different fields, including mental health, paediatrics and nutrition. The app is free to download but there is a fee for consulting with specialists.
Mobile Doctors 24-7, also in Dubai, provides a Dh36 monthly subscription service for unlimited calls to a doctor through video, voice and live chat, as well as wellness tips and videos and tools for activity and weight tracking.
Telemedicine can also be used to get a second opinion. The global health insurance provider Cigna has teamed up with Advance Medical in Barcelona to provide such a programme for its members. “Our panel of specialists from around the world now offer second opinions,” says Dr Ruchika Mukherjee, vice president, clinical operations, Cigna SAICO Health Benefits, which is based in Dubai. “We engage your case with two specialists from premium hospitals around the world. You end up with a report as to what is the best mode of treatment for your condition.”
Although telemedicine is expanding its reach, regulations still restrict what can be done in the UAE. Medical prescriptions, for example, cannot be given remotely, and unlike in many western countries, video consultations aren’t currently provided over Skype – although Al Obeidli says Telemedicine Centre might be using Skype in the near future.
“At present, if someone has a rash or some other visible condition, they can use the mobile app to take and send to us as many as four pictures,” she says. “They mark on a body map to show us where the ailment is.”
The implications for increasing the use of telemedicine in the UAE are far-reaching, but according to Aschkan Abdul Malek, co-founder of Dubai-based telemedicine providers AlemHealth, the impact of telemedicine will be greatest in countries where access to doctors is limited. AlemHealth creates hardware that allows for telemedicine in developing countries. “We’ve deployed it to date in Afghanistan and Nigeria, and we’re growing at a significant rate,” says Malek. “In the UAE, the patient-doctor ratio is about 700 patients for every one doctor. In Nigeria it’s 12 times that, and in Afghanistan seven times that. We go to places where the need is undeniable.”