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Telemedicine providers struggle to get clients

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Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Last week, the Health Ministry launched two mobile apps meant to ease access to medical care.

While the ‘Call the Clinic’ app is solely meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 by offering a platform to contact surveillance teams or trace contacts of positive cases, a partnership with Seven Doctors, a new telemedicine provider is for people who can’t find care for other health complications.

Dr Diana Atwine, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health says systems such as these are revolutionalising healthcare in the country adding that this is only the beginning of a new era in medical care in Uganda especially now that they want to minimize physical interactions as much as possible.

However, a week into the partnership that can enable patients to consult specialists, make appointments and get wellness tips among other services, Dr Raymond Baluku, the co-founder of Seven Doctors says they are not reaching as many patients and doctors as they should.

He says despite the popularity of smartphones, only a few people contact them and yet there is a slow uptake by doctors even as the app has been simplified to allow them to charge the same consultation fees like one would incur during hospital visits.

Because medical workers are not forthcoming, Baluku says they still have vacant slots of key specialities like cardiologists, psychiatrists, oncologists, dentists, neurologists, urologists and dermatologists.

Unlike Seven Doctors, another telemedicine provider Rocket Health Uganda reports having registered an increase in the number of call-ins at the height of the lockdown for home delivery of medicines, immunization services and dispatch of laboratory samples.

Sandra Arinaitwe, the Company’s Corporate Affairs manager tells URN that the increased calls were basically through word of mouth.

Arinaitwe says while the suspension of transport could have given them leverage to shine, telemedicine still doesn’t make sense to many as they still prefer visiting the clinic for even trivial illnesses that wouldn’t necessitate face to face interactions.

For them to register this increase, she says it was largely aided by health insurance brokers who always referred their clients to them. Before the lockdown, they only had one subscribed insurance company but they quickly jumped to four.

Apart from the absence of sufficient visibility, Baluku says telemedicine providers are still working on trial and error basis as there is no policy to guide their work. For him, each of the providers does what they think is appropriate without any form of sieving.

URN put these complaints to the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioners’ Council which mandated to regulate medical workers. The registrar, Dr Katumba Ssentongo acknowledged the prevailing challenges but said they can only take steps into regulation after the World Health Organization has offered guidelines on telemedicine that work for low developing countries.

That he says will give Uganda clues on what to or not include in the policy. When it comes to the bit of regulation which has details of who should engage in telemedicine or not and what their qualifications should be, the regulatory document, Katumba said is already in draft form and only awaits discussion.

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