2021 June-July Analysis Featured

WhatsApp, Doc? Georgia dials in to telemedicine

Covid-19 has sped up the adoption of e-health platforms in both the private and public sector in Georgia. Investor.ge takes a look at some of the main players in the nascent industry and forecasts for the coming years.

The medical profession has traditionally been distrustful of telemedicine, citing concerns of the feasibility of dispensing quality medical care at a distance.
However Covid-19 has made the sidelining of additional medical care an unaffordable luxury, and been a life-saver for overburdened medical institutions—and patients too.

Some studies claim telemedicine has the potential to reduce the number of hospital admissions by more than 30%, in addition to creating serious savings for patients.

Following on the back of a global uptick in use, telemedicine has cropped up in Georgia as well. The government was quick to identify and react to the need for telemedicine at the outset of the pandemic, setting up 25 online clinics in the initial stages, with that number growing to 87 e-health platforms by the end of 2020.

The private sector responded to the increased demand for medical support as well.

Mamuka Monavardisashvili, co-founder of myDoc.ge, a company which has been on the market since 2018 and which calls itself the first Georgian digital healthcare platform, told Investor.ge that demand for medical services without leaving home has increased dramatically in the past year.

“Although we had customers before, the number of remote consultations with doctors has grown rapidly, especially for general practitioners (so-called family doctors),” Monavardisashvili says, adding that the reason for low traffic in the pre-pandemic period was not skepticism, as might be expected. “Many simply didn’t know that the possibility was there. And some were unable to use the platform for reasons of technological know-how,” he says.

In the case of myDoc.ge, this may have been partially due to the platform’s leveraging of artificial intelligence and machine learning in delivering diagnoses. The platform combines information from more than 3,500 medical textbooks, used by an algorithm to process user-entered data (symptoms) and compare the data with potential diagnoses available in the medical literature.

After receiving a potential diagnosis, users can receive a video consultation from more than 50 doctors to receive further treatment or referrals.

Despite the increase in traffic, Monavardisashvili hesitates in calling the phenomenon a ‘boom,’ and instead expects that the industry will really take off in the next two-to-three years, predicting that nearly 30-40% of visits to the doctor will be carried out through telemedicine channels in five-to-six years’ time.

Those put off by the use of artificial intelligence have been able to find help on Facebook. The group Med Guide has nearly 90,000 members and more than a 1,000 actively participating doctors.

Co-founder of the group Nutsa Zurabiani says interest in the group rose especially quickly during peak Covid-19 periods when ambulances and hotlines were overloaded, with more than 1,000 to 1,500 people joining daily at peak times after its creation in October 2020.

The group sought to help dispense Covid-19 advice, and facilitate communication between doctors and patients, Zurabiani says. Group members post health-related questions, and then receive doctor recommendations and contact information from administrators in the group.

“We had contact with many doctors, so we were easily able to connect patients with them. Based on the interest in the group, I see a very pressing need for medicine to be further digitized in the country, and even brought onto social media,” Zurabiani says.

A number of other e-health resources are available in the country’s digital space. Redmed.ge, an e-health platform that appeared on the market before the Covid-19 pandemic, allows users to browse and contact doctors, plan appointments, and receive e-consultations.

The platform onlineclinic.ge works on a ‘one window’ principle, wherein customers can select a package of services ranging from calls to doctors and e-consultations to discounts on select medications. Prices start from 12 GEL and go up to 25 GEL per month.

Online psychotherapy platform speak.help also made its debut during the pandemic in Georgia, and offers the virtual services of psychologists in Georgian, English, Russian, and Turkish.

Critical infrastructure to support telemedicine came into place shortly before the pandemic began: Georgia launched an electronic medical record system (EMRS) in January 2019, which at that time was in use only by state medical institutions in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.

By the beginning of 2020, all medical institutions, both public and private, inpatient and outpatient, were obligated to produce electronic medical records.

Dr. Sergo Chikhladze says both the state and patients could stand to gain from the large-scale introduction of e-health:

“For the patient, this means minimizing time and effort in providing information to medical staff, reduced waiting times, and increased access to medical care for individuals living in rural areas. More support for early detection and treatment of disease is another benefit. Meanwhile, increased data from electronic health records will give physicians a more complete picture of a patient’s health,” Chikhladze says.

In addition to doctors, Chikhladze believes that health system managers, researchers and statisticians will significantly benefit from medicine going digital and online:

“The availability of reliable and up-to-date statistics is one of the major challenges that our current healthcare system faces. Without reliable and up-to-date statistics, it is impossible to plan future programs and budget properly.”

What remains to be seen is whether telemedicine will follow the trend of food delivery. Will e-health companies be tempted to expand abroad? And if they do, how well will local market players be able to stand up to newcomers? A follow-up appointment to check in on the industry might be called for if the pandemic is brought under control.

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