Trust between doctors, patients vital to utilize online medical services

There is great merit in online consultation, which make it easier to receive medical services for people who have difficulty going out or lack spare time. The use of such consultations must be expanded by building a relationship of trust between doctors and patients.

The government has decided to make the system of online consultations with doctors from the initial appointment permanent in the next fiscal year. Until now such consultations have been allowed on a special basis as a measure against the novel coronavirus. It is an opportune time to ease regulations and increase convenience.

Patients will be able to receive medical care and prescriptions through the screens of their computers and smartphones. This has the advantage of reducing the burden of having to visit hospitals and the risk of infections spreading in waiting rooms.

Previously, this service was only available for patients who had received in-person treatment for a certain period of time. The government eased the conditions last spring as an emergency measure in response to the pandemic.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is planning to formulate new guidelines to make the system permanent. As a general rule, online doctor consultations from the initial appointment will be allowed for family doctors and patients who have a history of previous consultations. The ministry said that it plans to also allow online consultations in other cases if the patient’s condition can be verified from the results of medical examinations.

There are still concerns about whether it is possible to diagnose a patient for the first time using only images on a screen. In order to prevent identity theft, it is reasonable for the system to be used by family doctors in principle. The government needs to create specific criteria, taking into consideration convenience and fraud prevention.

Many people might not have a family doctor. Also, many elderly people are not familiar with using devices such as computers and smartphones. The system must be made user-friendly so that as many people as possible can use it.

Online medical care would be best suited for patients with lifestyle-related diseases and intractable diseases when their symptoms have eased. For diseases that require regular checkups, such as pediatric asthma, online consultations are expected to make it easier for patients to receive medical care and go to school.

On the other hand, some illnesses are not suitable for online doctor consultations. The back of the nose and throat cannot be checked during online consultations, and further examination could be required in some cases. The Japanese Medical Science Federation has urged caution, warning that some symptoms are not suitable for online medical treatment, such as hematemesis, dizziness and severe chest pain.

Patients need to be aware of these limitations. It is advisable to choose a nearby medical institution and build a relationship of trust with doctors so that patients can receive immediate treatment.

Currently, the increase in the number of medical institutions that can offer online services is slowing down. One of the reasons for this is said to be that the medical fees paid to medical institutions for conducting online consultations are lower than those paid for in-person treatment. The ministry should consider raising the amount of payment in order to promote the use of online consultations.

Technological innovation has been remarkable, such as the development of devices that can be worn to constantly measure blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It is important to take advantage of new technologies and use them for health promotion.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 3, 2021.