Digital medicine is here to stay

Covid may have passed but patients around the world are still being treated by online professionals – including many based in the UAE

There is little doubt that the way of seeing one’s doctor in the 21st century has changed profoundly. Reuters
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Few relationships are as important as the ones we have with our doctors. But check-ups have changed rapidly in recent years thanks to a combination of a global pandemic and the spread of accessible communication technology such as smartphones and video-calling apps like Zoom.

The UAE is well-known as being something of an international crossroads, but there is something notable about The National’s story this week of therapists and other mental health professionals based in Dubai logging on to help overseas patients who have struggled to find suitable treatment in their own countries.

One of these professionals, Marie Byrne, a mental health counsellor from Ireland, holds regular Zoom consultations from the UAE with patients around the world. “It has many advantages, such as offering support in the comfort of familiar surroundings at home,” she said. “If a patient is upset, they can immediately process what has happened in somewhere they are comfortable, rather than a clinic. They don’t have to drive or travel anywhere either.”

The advantages of remote consultation and treatment are many. Communicating online reduces the risk of passing on infections and suits those millions of people who have mobility problems or live far from their healthcare provider. According to a 2021 case study on UAE telemedicine by Mediclinic Middle East, a private hospital group, doctors spend more time in preparation for each online appointment, something it claims has improved patient-doctor dialogue. The study also found that telemedicine was “excellent for the home monitoring of chronically ill patients” who are unable to come in for examinations.

Remote medicine also allows patients to schedule appointments at times that suit and – able to access services internationally – can receive care in their native language. It also frees healthcare professionals from having to treat only those people who can physically make it to their office or clinic – instead they can build up an additional patient base overseas.

Although the pandemic has largely passed, it has left behind significant demand for remote medicine and mental health care. Physicians are busy meeting this demand, as can be seen in the proliferation of professional training courses for digital medicine. Cornell University and the Mayo Clinic in the US, as well as the James Lind Institute in Switzerland are just three organisations that have added telemedicine into their prospectuses.

In the UAE, digital medicine is now well established. In December 2019, the Dubai Health Authority launched a smart service called Doctor for Every Citizen that enabled Emiratis to receive free health consultations around the clock through video and voice calls. The service was later extended to all Dubai residents as the pandemic took hold. In Abu Dhabi, the emirate’s RemoteCare smartphone app has a tool for examining symptoms, diagnosing non-emergency cases, booking appointments and organising tele-consultations with doctors via voice or video calls or text messages. Many private healthcare providers in the UAE also offer services on smartphone or desktop devices.

Despite the advantages, few who champion remote medicine would argue against the enduring need for in-person consultation and treatment. In medicine, as with much in life, the personal touch is important. And some doctors have their concerns. In 2021, Prof Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners – family doctors in the UK – told the Guardian newspaper he thought remote consultations risked damaging the relationship between GPs and patients.

Although a balance will have to be struck, there is little doubt that the way of seeing one’s doctor in the 21st century has changed profoundly. If technology allows a therapist in the UAE to help patients on the other side of the world, or for doctors to give results and advice to someone during their lunch break, then it seems digital medicine is here to stay and that is a good development.

Published: August 03, 2023, 3:00 AM