KARACHI: Amid growing telemedicine and virtual health systems, mainly after the coronavirus pandemic, the Sindh government is going to focus on the technology-driven venture and planning legislation to address the regulation of this sector both to capitalise on its potential and to regulate the new sector, a top official said on Sunday.

The move is part of the provincial government plan of reforms in the health sector which attracted serious attention from local and international players during the Covid-19 challenges, demanding strong measures and quick response in the wake of any crisis-like situation.

Health experts said the establishment of virtual hospitals and telemedicine system emerges as a blessing for patients, especially those who have to travel frequently to see their consultants, wait for hours and face the hassle in availing medical services at clinics and hospitals, saying this facility would save thousands of patients from inconvenience.

Amid growing number of initiatives and appreciation from the medical fraternity, the situation has also attracted attention of the authorities who now bring the innovative idea into the loop to enhance the provincial health system.

“The growth [in telemedicine and virtual health system] is a positive development but needs regulation because there are certain norms and protocols to be followed and ethical considerations, including patient privacy for telemedicine and information being advocated through telehealth, so that it aligns itself to scientific data and proven scientific information is disseminated through telehealth,” Sindh minister for health Dr Azra Pechuho told Dawn.

She said that the telehealth and telemedicine were two different areas and the provincial government was determine to facilitate both operators and people who wanted to avail this facility through quality standards.

“Telemedicine is where consultation is directly given to the patient or their caregiver whereas telehealth is where information is shared with a community or specific groups or where direct health personnel are given training on patient care and diseases to enhance their capacity to give healthcare,” said Dr Pechuho.

The growing trend around the world and the opportunity created by the pandemic encouraged many local operators to come with the innovative idea but only a few have so far met the expectations. The Ehad Virtual Health (EVH) is one of the very few projects of virtual health system, which has emerged successful.

“We have launched Pakistan’s first and the only virtual health facility in Karachi which is offering nurse-assisted teleconsultation, home lab collection, radiological procedures at patients’ bedside at their residence and medicine delivery to them at their doorsteps,” said Dr Anam Daayem, of the EVH.

So far, she said, around two dozen Covid-19 patients availed the nurse-assisted teleconsultation service of the EVH, where a team of consultants treated bed-bound patients at their homes with the help of nurses and paramedics, provided them lab services at their residence and all the medicines, supplies including oxygen and equipment required for therapies were delivered at their doorsteps.

“With the help of portable X-ray and ECG machines, these tests are performed at the patient’s residence, all their blood and other secretions’ samples are drawn at their homes and results are delivered online,” said Dr Daayem. “With the help of online gadgets, a trained nurse or paramedic conveys the condition of a patient to a top-notch physician, who prescribes medicines and these medicines and supplies are supplied to patient from Ehad’s pharmacy on the same day at a discounted rate.”

The government on the other hand is determined to regulate the sector which it says “has a future” and the challenges like Covid-19 demand more effective and parallel healthcare system across the country.

“It definitely has a future because there maybe future pandemic where accessibility to healthcare is hampered as seen during the current Covid-19 crises,” said Dr Pechuho. “Therefore the future need for distant healthcare will become the norm and seeing the need for this the health department is currently developing a legislation to address the regulation of this sector. We are looking at a hub and scope plan for distant healthcare. A legislation has been put together.”

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2020