Digital tools offered by our medical schemes enable better access to healthcare – are we using them optimally?

Gary Feldmen
1 August 2023
8 min read

The Covid-19 pandemic may have impacted our lives in many negative ways, but it also forced us to think “out of the box”, resulting in some positive changes. For one, it fast-tracked innovation in digital healthcare platforms and telemedicine in the healthcare sector. Now that Covid-19 has been overshadowed by other socio-economic issues, it is a good time to investigate how we can use technology to provide better access to quality healthcare for all. In this article, Gary Feldman, NMG’s Executive Head of Healthcare Consulting, explores various digital tools such as telemedicine, health information websites, apps and online support communities and how they can benefit the individual, our medical schemes and the healthcare industry in South Africa as a whole.

Technology and digitisation have key benefits

Before unpacking the different digital tools and platforms available today, it’s important to understand the benefits of digitisation in the healthcare industry.

Improved healthcare accessibility

Digital tools can break down barriers to access to healthcare, particularly for individuals in remote areas and those who struggle with transport. Technology enables people to connect with healthcare professionals, access medical information and receive timely care regardless of their location. Feldman said, “This inclusivity ensures that more individuals receive the necessary healthcare services that they need, at a price that they can afford.”

Enhanced efficiency and convenience

Digital tools streamline healthcare processes, such as remote consultations, appointment scheduling and prescription management. This improves efficiency, reduces waiting times and enhances convenience for both patients and healthcare providers. Feldman added, “It eliminates unnecessary travel and enables individuals to access healthcare services from the comfort of their homes, also saving them time and money.”

Empowerment through information

Technology anddigital tools provide easy access to vast amounts of critical medical information, empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their health. Feldman said, “With access to reputable online resources, health apps and wearable devices, individuals can monitor their health, learn more about symptoms, seek preventative measures and better manage chronic conditions. This promotes proactive healthcare management and patient empowerment.”

Convenience through wearables and remote monitoring

Digital tools such as wearable devices and remote monitoring systems enable the continuous tracking of vital signs, health metrics and symptoms. Feldman explained, “It facilitates early detection of health issues, prompt interventions, timely preventative measures and provides a platform to manage chronic conditions more effectively. By identifying potential health concerns early, individuals can also take necessary actions to mitigate risks and improve health outcomes.”

Cost saving

Technology and digital tools have the potential to reduce healthcare costs for both patients and providers. Feldman said, “Telemedicine and remote monitoring can lower expenses associated with travel, hospital stays and frequent in-person visits. Patients can avoid unnecessary visits to emergency rooms or clinics for non-urgent issues. Digital health records and e-prescriptions reduce administrative costs and minimise human errors associated with traditional paper-based systems.”

Increased support and collaboration

Digital tools and platforms build collaboration and support networks among healthcare professionals, researchers and patients. Online platforms, support communities and teleconferencing tools facilitate knowledge sharing, second opinions and multidisciplinary collaboration, ultimately leading to improved patient care and outcomes.

Technology and digital tools take several different forms

Technology platforms and digital tools are being used in many different ways. In this table, we look at six of the most common digitised solutions already being used in the healthcare sector:

PlatformWhat is it?How can it be used?
TelemedicineA means for patients to communicate with healthcare providers remotely using telephone calls, online meetings and video conferencing and chats.Remote consultations. It improves access to healthcare and provides individuals with geographic barriers with access to healthcare. It also enables patients to receive medical advice, diagnosis and prescriptions without the need for in-person visits.
Websites and appsA rich source of health-related information.It provides easy access to a vast amount of reputable medical information, allowing individuals to learn about symptoms, treatment and prevention. Reliable and accessible websites and mobile apps offer health tips and insights. Medical schemes also offer member portals with extensive healthcare information.
Wearable devicesRemote monitoring devices and self-assessment tools.Wearable devices provide access to reputable tools. Discovery Health’s Vitality programme and wellness programmes offered by other medical schemes allow members to assess mental health and other conditions using these wearable devices and tools.
Online appointment booking servicesPlatforms that facilitate appointment booking online.It eliminates the need for phone calls or physical visits to facilities, saving time and money, and improving access.
E-prescriptions and digital health recordsA streamlined prescription process that stores digital health records for real-time access to health histories.It enables healthcare providers to send prescriptions directly to pharmacies, eliminating the need for paper prescriptions and reducing human errors. Digital health records centralise patient information, making it easy for healthcare professionals to authorise procedures regardless of location.
Communities and online supportOnline collaboration platforms for individuals who have the same or similar healthcare needs.Individuals can connect, share their experiences, and support each other through their recovery journey.

Financing medical costs in retirement

Technology is also empowering individuals to take control of the financing of healthcare costs in retirement with products like SmartAid. Feldman added, “With healthcare costs increasing by 3% to 4% above inflation every year, many people find themselves in a place where they are unprepared for these rising costs. NMG has launched a retirement annuity called SmartAid that is dedicated to saving for medical costs in retirement. The SmartAid calculator is a digital tool that helps you calculate how much you need to save for future healthcare costs. SmartAid and other products like it can make a marked difference in an individual’s financial security when it comes to rising healthcare costs.”

There is always room for innovation and improvement

While significant progress has been made by medical schemes to leverage digital tools, there is still room for improvement and further innovation. When it comes to adoption and integration, many medical schemes have started incorporating digital tools and there may be variations in the adoption and integration across the different schemes. It is essential for medical schemes to actively embrace and implement digital solutions to encourage widespread access and usability. Medical schemes also need to focus on:

  • Building education and awareness: members need to know about and understand how to use digital tools. By raising awareness and providing training or support, members can use these tools effectively.
  • Building user-friendly interfaces: digital tools need user-friendly interfaces that are accessible to individuals with varying levels of technology literacy. Simplicity and ease of use can help overcome potential barriers to adoption and encourage a wider uptake.
  • Keeping data private and secure: data privacy and security should be a priority to build trust with members. Strict protocols and safeguards should be in place to protect personal health information.
  • Providing comprehensive digital services: comprehensive suites of digital solutions help members to get accustomed to relying on digital resources for their healthcare needs. For example, Discovery Health offers Connected Care – a digital platform with a range of home-based healthcare services for different levels of care.
  • Collaborating with healthcare providers: integration with healthcare providers will promote seamless healthcare workflows and accessibility. Collaboration can also aid in coordination and communication between medical schemes, providers and members. This will result in better healthcare outcomes.
  • Ongoing evaluation and improvement: regularly assessing the impact of digital tools in medical schemes includes getting regular feedback from members and healthcare providers. This will help refine the digital tools and enhance the user experience and member relationship with the medical scheme.

Technological advancements have transformed the healthcare landscape, making it easier for individuals to access medical care, get information and manage their health effectively. Feldman concluded, “The looming launch of National Health Insurance and a recent investigation into medical scheme costs have triggered discussions about the high cost of private healthcare. It accounts for 60% of the healthcare industry while only catering to a small percentage of the population. Technology and digital tools could very well be an overlooked solution to the cost debate, while improving access to quality healthcare for all, at the same time.”

Speak to an NMG healthcare consultant about the digital offerings on your medical aid, and the possibility that you may be missing out on the broader healthcare solution offered by your medical scheme.

T&Cs apply. NMG Consultants and Actuaries (Pty) LTD is an authorised financial services provider FSP 12968


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