Stepping Into Digital Health Care Through Telemedicine — Yap Yoong Hong & Dr Sean Thum

Through telemedicine, individuals living in remote areas can access medical advice and treatment without the need to travel to big cities.

Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil has recently shown interest in exploring digital health solutions for Malaysians in the digital age through two key engagements.

A visit to the Norwegian Radium Hospital, known for its integrated 5G network in medical services, highlighted the potential for innovation in patient treatment and the development of health solutions for greater efficiency.

Additionally, he unveiled the CelcomDigi Digital Healthcare Solutions, which was backed by both the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) as well as the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA).

These actions reflect the government’s vision of utilising digital solutions to address the health care challenges faced by Malaysians, particularly in public health care facilities.

This focus comes at a critical juncture, with statistics indicating that one in two Malaysians is obese or overweight, one in four does not engage in physical activity, and only one in twenty maintains a healthy diet.

Moreover, 3.6 million Malaysians are living with diabetes, and 6.1 million have high blood pressure.

These statistics underscore the pressing need for innovative health care solutions to improve the wellbeing of Malaysians and reduce the burden on public healthcare services. One way to move forward is through digital healthcare.

Digital health care is beneficial for several reasons, with one key advantage being its ability to increase accessibility to health care services, in particular rural communities.

Additionally, digital health enhances the availability of health care, as some specialties and treatments are only available in major urban centres.

Furthermore, innovations like the use of drones for medicine delivery ensure that essential medications reach patients in remote or hard-to-reach areas, improving overall healthcare access and outcomes.

One of the many modalities of digital health care is telemedicine. Through telemedicine, individuals living in remote areas can access medical advice and treatment without the need to travel to big cities.

Can Telemedicine Work In Malaysia?

The regulations are already in place. Despite being relatively unknown to many, the 1997 Telemedicine Act positioned Malaysia as pioneers when it comes to digital health solutions in the region.

There is also the Malaysian Medical Council Guideline on Telemedicine, whose latest update was in January 2024.

We have gotten the regulations in place. However, our efforts to capitalise effectively on these regulations and guidelines is lacking. Nevertheless, as we delve deeper into the digital age, the transition to telehealth necessitates three key components: internet access, compatible devices, and digital literacy.

Internet Access

The 4G network coverage in Malaysia has almost reached 100 per cent; concurrently, as of December 2023, 5G internet coverage has reached 80.2 per cent.

Additionally, the average internet speed in Malaysia is 116.03Mbps, surpassing the average internet speed in the United Kingdom at 69.4Mbps.

The United States Federal Communications Commission suggests that for a 4 Mbps Single Physician Practice, it is possible to simultaneously use electronic health records, conduct high quality video consultations, and enable remote monitoring.

As a comparison, the guideline suggests that an internet speed of 100 Mbps can enable various critical functions such as hospital management, continuous remote monitoring, and HD video consultations.

Therefore, with such advantageous infrastructure in place, Malaysia possesses all the necessary connectivity to support telemedicine initiatives effectively.

Secondly, according to the Handphone Users Survey (HPUS), a remarkable 94.8 per cent of the Malaysian population possess smartphones, indicating extensive accessibility to compatible devices for telemedicine utilisation.

This high ownership rate underscores the feasibility of implementing telemedicine solutions without significant device compatibility barriers.

For those without compatible devices, there are 911 National Information Dissemination Centres (NaDi) across Malaysia, with an additional 186 centres being set up throughout 2024, allowing for computer and internet access.

A strategic approach involves coordinating resources between local healthcare facilities and NaDis. This allows stable patients to use computers in NaDis for teleconsultations with their physicians, effectively resolving device compatibility gaps.

Thirdly, while addressing digital literacy presents unique challenges, proactive measures are already in motion. The Ministry of Education has taken a significant step forward by instituting the Digital Education Policy, which aims to equip the younger generation with essential digital skills, preparing them for the evolving landscape of the digital age.

With the digital transformation spearheaded by MAMPU and Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad’s expression of determination to implement the digital health transformation agenda comprehensively, there is a good chance the transition to telemedicine can take place successfully.

While that might be the case, this transition must be phased in gradually. One good example of telemedicine (or in this case, teledentistry) is that of the practice in the UK, where patients seeking dental services will undergo remote assessments with their dentists, before getting told if they require an in-person visit.

The replication of this approach in Malaysia not only has the potential to reduce medicinal and societal costs, saving money for the Ministry of Health besides shortening patient wait times, making telemedicine more practical and efficient.

A public-private partnership certainly is much required to advance digital health solutions in Malaysia. It is crucial for the Ministries of Health, Digital, Communications, and Science, Technology and Innovation to unite in supporting digital health initiatives in this digital age.

By developing a strong partnership between the private and public sectors, Malaysia can unleash the full potential of digital technologies in health care improvement, better patient outcomes, as well as expect a healthier future for the rakyat.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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