Bukidnon RHUs urged to provide telemedicine services for constituents

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 13 September) – Even with the increasing cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections in Bukidnon, not a single rural health unit (RHU) in the province has offered institutional telemedicine or virtual clinical services for their constituents.

Dr. Vincent Raguro, head of the Department of Health  (DOH) in Bukidnon, said that no RHU in the province has been accredited with the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) to conduct telemedicine services so far.

He said the RHUs needed the PhilHealth accreditation to be qualified to claim capitation to sustain their operations.

According to PhilHealth, capitation is the scheme or form for the corporation to pay the RHU for specific services it provides.

The RHUs of the cities of Malaybalay and Valencia have on-going applications for PhilHealth accreditation, Raguro said.

“Hopefully they will be able to obtain accreditation soon,” he added.

Dr. Efren D. Villahermosa, Jr., president of the 350-member Bukidnon Medical Society (BMS), said that with the current strain in the health system due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, there is a need to institutionalize the use of virtual consultations or telemedicine, especially by the RHUs.

He said in an interview with MindaNews last week that the full occupancy of hospitals did not only bring trouble to the COVID-19 patients.

“The non-COVID-19 case patients, especially the indigents with non-communicable diseases, have really suffered because they hesitate to access the usual medical services for fear of being exposed to COVID-19,” he added.

Villahermosa said that with or without PhilHealth accreditation, local government units (LGUs), thru their RHUs, should already conduct virtual consultation or telemedicine as a tool to combat the spread of the virus while catering to the needs of non-COVID-19 cases at the same time.

In May 2021, the DOH, the Department of Interior and Local Government and PhilHealth issued a joint administrative order providing for guidelines on the implementation of telemedicine.

The guidelines, among others, provide that LGUs “shall lead and ensure the adoption and implementation of telemedicine services within their area based on the standards and guidelines provided by the order, provide the needed resources, investments, and support mechanisms to facilitate the institutionalization and seamless implementation of telemedicine services, and ensure proper complementation of efforts at the local level.”

Villahermosa said there is a need to limit face-to-face consultations for patients with non-communicable diseases to avoid their exposure to possible COVID-19 patients.

He said that through telemedicine, the RHUs can pre-screen patients and find out who really needs in-person consultation.

The World Health Organization defines telemedicine as the delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities.

Villahermosa said the LGUs should invest in a platform for telemedicine and need not wait for the national government to initiate it so that indigent patients in their areas can still access health services even during the pandemic.

He cited the examples of the Provincial Government of Cebu’s SugboMed and the Municipality of Liloan, Cebu’s GugMed Online Medical Consultation. They worked with private firms providing information technology solutions.

“As you can see, Cebu is into telemedicine since the middle of last year,” he said, adding, however, that he is unsure how the initiatives have progressed to date.

Locally, Villahermosa said the LGUs can design telemedicine platforms via the rural health unit and the barangays. He added that doctors can be where they are and their indigent patients may proceed to the barangay hall, where a telemedicine setup can be arranged.

He said the province’s medical society is willing to sit down with interested RHUs to arrange a group of select specialists who can serve the telemedicine platform for free.

Villahermosa stressed the need for the set up to be done as soon as possible to help address the problem of lack of access to health services by indigents and other patients in general.

So far, only two private hospitals in the province offer telemedicine services to their patients, he said. (MindaNews)