Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic came along, many things have had to move online. Especially here in Zimbabwe, there was a drastic shift towards doing things online. This was something that had been foreign since most things were being done offline before. In a way, you can say something good came out of those times of incessant lockdowns. One of the exciting areas that were not spared was medicine. Lockdowns meant somehow; medicine had to be practised online. Our discussion in this article is on telemedicine. Telemedicine is the transfer of medical information via telecommunication technologies for consulting or remote medical procedures or examinations.

MDPCZ Policy On Telemedicine Has Been Around Since 2014

I keep noticing that some important policy documents are widely unknown to most people in Zimbabwe. Recently I noticed this with the Consumer Protection Act, which was consummated in 2020. It has 92 sections of valuable information businesses and consumers ought to know. It seems there are no deliberate efforts by relevant authorities to conscientise the public when new policies emerge or when policies are reviewed. Anyways, the Medical and Dental Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe (MDPCZ) has always had a policy on telemedicine. It had been around for 7 or so years yet widely unknown. The pandemic necessitated a review of the policy, and the reviewed one was availed in July this year.

Some Key Takeaways From The MDPCZ Policy On Telemedicine

Confirming A Patient’s Identity And Medical History

While this is a good provision, it might be difficult to do. Confirming the patient’s identity, yes, that can be done. However, confirming their medical history can be tricky. The policy says, ‘…practitioner should confirm a patient’s…medical history with their regular practitioner’. Some patients might have regular practitioners, but it’s likely many do not. The other challenge is that most practitioners do not have computerised records of their patients. How will that confirmation process be done? It looks to me like it might be an inconvenient bottleneck. Then again, would someone’s regular practitioner comply with another practitioner for the sake of their regular patient? There are some sticky issues with this provision.

Confirming A Patient’s Insurance Cover Prior

This is, in many ways, to protect the patient though in a way, it also protects the service provider. The policy stipulates that the medical practitioner must confirm the patient’s insurance coverage beforehand. This entails the patient stating the insurance company they are subscribed to. The policy states that this is to ‘avoid unnecessary financial strain for the patient’. In the traditional medicine industry, it has become common for patients with insurance cover to be told after a consultation that what they need is not covered. Often time patients are then required to pay top-ups or whole amounts. This provision is meant to avoid such hiccups in telemedicine.

Practitioners To Protect The Privacy And Confidentiality Of Patients

Understand that telemedicine can be done via platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and the like. These are platforms that are not iron-clad; they can be vulnerable. It can take someone stealing a medical practitioner’s phone to access sensitive patient information. Remember that once the patient avails sensitive details to the practitioner, it is out of control. They cannot absolutely ascertain what the practitioner does with the information will uphold their privacy and confidentiality. All the same, it is good that the provision is there to put practitioners in line.

Practitioners To Practise Telemedicine From Registered Health Premises

This is somewhat strange because it limits the extent of telemedicine. One of the conveniences of telemedicine is being to help with assistance at almost any time. This provision means when a practitioner is away from registered health premises, they cannot practise telemedicine. What of practitioners that might not have registered health premises to operate from? It seemed to me the rationale was for practitioners to have registered health premises for scenarios that might need in-person consultations. Fair enough, but what of after-hours, do patients have to miss out on telemedicine?

I will admit there are some concerns regarding many provisions in this policy. Most of the provisions are good on paper, but a long shot to roll out. Plus, I think enforcement might not be done effectively, as is the norm in Zimbabwe. As much as the policy largely guides medical professionals on telemedicine, the general public must familiarize themselves with it just as much. Those who might become patients and require telemedicine would know the dynamics. It protects you in that you can tell when you are being mistreated. Even those with ambitions to develop digital products on telemedicine can stand guided. Remember, ignorance is not bliss. Breaching any of the provisions in the policy has consequences, whether you were aware or not.