Going digital

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Shortly after we went on lockdown in mid-March, Dr. Maui Bondoc-Hermosa posted a notice that said her “online eye clinic is now up and running. I can help with eye emergencies, any eye pain/discomforts, do visual acuity tests, second opinions. Send a message to facebook.com/docmaui.eyeMD.

Dr. Maui, the daughter of fellow PhilStar columnist Jarius Bondoc, is a Singapore-trained ophthalmologist. She knew that many of us are afraid to see a doctor because of the Covid pandemic.

Indeed, many of us have been hesitating to visit our doctor’s clinic in the hospital out of fear of catching Covid. This has resulted in a significant drop of non-Covid patients availing services from their doctors or from the hospital.

Early in the pandemic, we were told not to risk being exposed to Covid and add more burden to an already overworked health system. “Do not go to the hospital unless it is an emergency.”

Thus, when my wife needed to have her regular blood tests, the technicians of Medical City went to our house instead. No matter how much assurance hospitals give us of how well they disinfect their premises and segregate Covid from non-Covid patients, the fear is there.

This is why Dr. Maui’s offer to give eye checkups online was helpful. If she thinks you need more intensive attention, she can set up a clinic visit, which I presume is in a non-hospital setting.

To those who need other specialists, Dr. Maui posted that “the Cardinal Santos Medical Center e-consult system is now online. Just log on to csmceconsult.com if you need a check-up and choose among the roster of doctors/ specialties available. You can find me there too.”

Dr. Maui providing digital consultation couldn’t have come at a better time. Many of us have been going on Netflix binges or spending long hours in front of a computer as we work at home.

Dr. Maui also writes a blog about common eye problems that is helpful. She writes in a relaxed style that is easy to understand and reassuring.

“Have you noticed that not even 30 minutes into your Zoom meeting your eyes feel very dry and your vision becomes blurred. You start to panic, remembering what your mom used to tell you: looking at a screen for long periods will permanently damage your eyes!

“Don’t fret. That isn’t true. What is, though, is you’ll get eye strain. The eyes blink normally at a rate of 15 times a minute – the eyelids help moisturize the eyes when we close them. When we’re focused on our phones/ computers/gadgets, the blink rate goes down to as low as five times a minute, drying and straining our eyes.”

Telemedicine should have arrived in this country long ago. There are many times we could have saved a trip to a doctor’s office and the usual long wait if there is a digital consult option.

The consult need not be on FaceTime or Zoom or similar programs. It could be as simple as an e-mailed question about one’s prescription or to ask about a symptom that just occurred.

They do e-mailed consultations in the US and the patient or his health insurance is charged a consultation fee. That’s probably why there is reluctance to do it here. Of course, that’s just fair because the doctor will use his knowledge and spend time responding to it.

In the case of Dr. Maui, she is donating her professional fees from online consultations to the Tzu Chi Foundation, to help the charitable organization provide medical services to those in need.

Telemedicine can also be a big help in complicated cases. Local specialists can use it as back-up consults from international experts/hospitals. Hospitals may charge for the service but it shouldn’t be a problem specially if a life is saved. In medicine, two or more heads are often better than one… a second opinion.

Telemedicine can also help hospitals and patients in the provinces. In the same way that Manila hospitals ask for second opinions from abroad, they in turn, can provide the same to rural hospitals, where there are few specialists. In an emergency, this may be lifesaving.

I attended a briefing in Toronto some years ago about how telemedicine makes it possible for a top surgeon in New York to remotely operate on a patient in  San Francisco or even Manila. It assumes, however, that we have a first-rate telecom system with guaranteed uninterrupted connection from beginning to end.

The pandemic has made us realize even more how backward we are in our digital adaptation. A recent World Bank study told us the use of digital technologies such as digital payments, e-commerce, telemedicine, and online education helps individuals, businesses, and the government cope with social distancing measures, ensure business continuity, and deliver public services during the pandemic.

The World Bank observed that the use of digital technologies here is still below its potential. Our digital adoption is trailing many regional neighbors. The “digital divide” between those with and without the internet leads to unequal access to social services and life-changing economic opportunities.

But as in all things digital, internet connectivity is the problem, specially in rural areas.

The World Bank country director responsible for our country has this to say:

“Upgrading digital infrastructure all over the country will introduce fundamental changes that can improve social service delivery, enhance resilience against shocks, and create more economic opportunities for all Filipinos.”

The World Bank report also noted our low transaction account ownership, the lack of a national ID, nascent payment infrastructure, and the perceived risk of digital transactions as restricting the wider adoption of digital payments.

“Encouraging wider participation on digital payments is best supported by public agencies going digital themselves.”

That’s why DICT must speed up its various projects from the national broadband network, to enhancing connectivity of world class quality all the way to our homes and offices.

Hopefully it all happens soon.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco




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