Video consultations rolled out to cut hospital trips

A waiting area at the Singapore General Hospital.
A waiting area at the Singapore General Hospital.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

6 public healthcare institutions in scheme that lets patients consult experts from their homes

Patients could find themselves travelling to hospital less often once a new video call system for medical consultations clicks into gear.

The system enables patients to consult experts from the comfort of their homes, and hospitals to use their resources more effectively.

Six public healthcare institutions have agreed to join this project, including KK Women's and Children's Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, National University Hospital (NUH) and Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Some have already started using the system, while the rest will do so by the year end. More institutions, including private ones, could come on board later. The list of services and conditions that can be addressed through video consulting could also expand.

 

Each institution has its own video call services. For example, SGH is focusing on speech therapy, while the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) offers psychiatric counselling.

All patients will get face-time with a doctor at their first appointment. Only those whose conditions are deemed suitable will be given the option of a video call follow-up.

"This is new, so we are moving cautiously... you do need a clinical assessment that involves face-to- face (interaction)," said Associate Professor Low Cheng Ooi, who is chief clinical informatics officer at Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), Singapore's healthcare technology agency.

"We can't just throw away the stethoscope and replace it with a camera," added Dr Low, who is also chief medical informatics officer at the Ministry of Health.

Still, these calls could either replace follow-up consultations or allow for more frequent check-ups.

During their video appointments, patients can log in using a smartphone application or their Web browser. The consultation will start after a check to verify their identity.

Similar "tele-medicine" projects have been carried out on a small scale by individual healthcare institutions as far back as 2005.

However, this is the first time a concerted effort has been made to get so many different centres on board. Apart from the four hospitals, two specialist centres - IMH and the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS) - are involved in the new scheme.

Having all the groups use a single virtual platform allows for consistent implementation nationwide, said Mr Chua Chee Yong, who is director of the planning group at IHiS.

The scheme is part of the Smart Health initiative - under the broader Smart Nation drive - that aims to use technology to increase productivity and ease the burden on crowded hospitals.

"Cases are getting more complex as our population ages," said Mr Chua. "At the same time, our physical and manpower resources are also stretched. We need to find effective ways to use our limited resources."

So far, about 190 patients have been enrolled across four institutions. NCIS and NUH will get on board later this year.

The old pilot projects - which use different systems and cover areas such as ophthalmology and geriatrics - will be gradually shifted onto the new video call platform.

Unlike existing platforms, said Mr Chua, the new service allows for multi-party calls, so several medical staff can join in. It is also cheaper to scale up, and can cater to participants on mobile phone platforms, he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Video consultations rolled out to cut hospital trips'. Print Edition | Subscribe