Singapore

Telemedicine services to be licensed in mid-2022

Move comes as such services become more popular and will be part the upcoming Healthcare Services Act

The Ministry of Health (MOH) aims to license telemedicine services in the middle of next year as part of the phasing in of the upcoming Healthcare Services Act.

MOH, which started a regulatory sandbox for telemedicine in 2018 to better understand the risks, said in February this year that it has achieved the objectives.

In the interim, it introduced in February a voluntary listing of direct telemedicine providers that have agreed to comply with certain measures. These include ensuring their doctors or dentists complete the MOH telemedicine e-training.

The list now has more than 600 telemedicine providers, including public hospitals, clinics and telemedicine firms.

From April 1, only listed providers have been able to offer Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) subsidies and MediSave for video consultations for follow-ups of chronic conditions.

In April last year - just before Singapore went into lockdown mode - patients were allowed to tap Chas subsidies and MediSave for video consultations for regular follow-ups covering seven chronic conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and anxiety.

This was expanded last October to cover 20 chronic conditions, including osteoporosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and ischaemic heart disease.

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The Healthcare Services Bill was approved by Parliament in early January last year, before the Covid-19 crisis spiralled out of control around the world. At that time, the new law was planned to be implemented in three phases, from early 2021 to the end of 2022.

The new timeline is from September this year to March 2023.

Telemedicine has increased significantly in the past year in light of the pandemic, and it is not just private telemedicine firms offering the convenience of a virtual visit for a minor illness. Public healthcare institutions are stepping up as well.

Data from the Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), the tech agency for public healthcare institutions, shows that the use of video consultations in telemedicine continued to rise towards the end of last year.

By October last year, 24,227 patients had sought medical help through video consultations.

This number reached at least 36,000 by January this year, noted IHiS data, while 125 public healthcare institutions held more than 7,500 video consultations in that month, up from 6,718 in October.

Only 53 such institutions offered telemedicine in January last year, and just 407 video consultations were done.

Although many people find face-to-face consultations irreplaceable, there is now a bigger group that is open to using telemedicine.

Older patients, in particular, may need more medical help but may not be IT-savvy or open to the idea.

Retiree Evelyn Teo, 67, who uses her mobile phone for online shopping, passed on the chance of a virtual consultation last year. "I don't know how to see my doctor online. I prefer to just wear my mask and go to the hospital to see him. Everything is easier in person," she said in Mandarin.

This article first appeared in The Straits Times.

MEDICAL & HEALTH