There is still resistance from traditional doctors and pharmacists and cultural leanings to overcome, but telehealth and telemedicine have been gaining traction in Jamaica, and new investors are entering the market with web-based solutions.
Advanced Integrated Systems Limited, whose solutions are in use in Jamaica and The Bahamas, says the driver of business in telehealth has been the ‘convenience factor’, and that the pandemic had accelerated the acceptance of online doctor ‘visits’ as a mode of healthcare delivery.
“The use of telemedicine and digital health products have increased in Jamaica over the last five years,” said AIS through its communications unit. “The COVID-19 pandemic gave a boost to these systems when it became necessary for people to find alternative ways of seeking care, besides having to go to facilities in person.”
As such, since 2020, the technology company said it has been getting “more and more interest in digitising medical facilities” and was in discussion with several public and private organisations, locally and overseas, to supply its tech solutions.
But it’s not the only one.
Last week, a new market entrant announced it had become a reseller of the services of web platform ContinuousCare, having struck a deal with owner NeedStreet Web Technologies.
Dawgen Global said it would be marketing the online medium across the Caribbean as a tool for healthcare providers to connect with patients and manage their practices. Its services include remote patient monitoring, video and text consultations, mobile apps for patients and healthcare providers, appointment scheduling and billings, and prescriptions.
The current size of Jamaica’s telemedicine market was not known up to press time, but Caribbeanwide, it is projected to become a more than US$350-million market this year, with the potential to grow to US$550 million in another four years, according Executive Chairman of Dawgen Global, Dawkins Brown.
Globally, the market is said to have catapulted above US$80 billion, or about twice its pre-pandemic size.
Inside Jamaica, one of the most well-known players in the market is MDLink Limited, operator of TheMDLink.com and the recently acquired MDLink Diagnostic Laboratory, formerly known as Fleet Diagnostic.
The company is currently in expansion mode in Jamaica and the region. It’s also planning to go public and float its shares on the Jamaica Stock Exchange, but is yet to select a broker for the share offer and listing.
MDLink launched into business five years ago with a proprietary digital health platform that was developed by its in-house team.
“We do offer white labelling and licensing options to medical institutions,” said founder and CEO Che Bowen. White labelling is where the developer of a product or service customises versions of it for third parties to sell under their own name or brand.
Bowen affirmed that telemedicine became more acceptable to Jamaicans during the coronavirus pandemic, but noted that the market’s potential is being stifled by slow adopters, citing prescriptions as one example.
“E-prescriptions are still not processed easily by pharmacies, despite the Ministry of Health approving same,” said Bowen.
But: “We know this will be streamlined soon and continue to push forward,” he added.
While convenience was found to be a driver of emergent consumer acceptance of telemedicine services, for Bowen, some of the fuel for the market has been the advances made in the evolution of Jamaica’s e-payment infrastructure. The change is also concurrent with e-commerce trends.
“The digital gap is closing and the online payment gap is also closing. More and more persons are becoming familiar with the use of online e-commerce, thanks to other companies like Lynk, the banks, and delivery apps,” said the telemed entrepreneur, even while acknowledging that for patients who are more culturally inclined towards confidential, face-to-face consultations with their doctor, acceptance of healthcare delivery through cyberspace remains a challenge.
Amid the advancements in the market, the Bureau of Standards Jamaica produced a standard for the sector last year – the Jamaican Standard Specification for Telemedicine JS 359: 2022 – which cover issues related to provider-patient relationship; issues of liability and negligence; evaluation, management and treatment; informed consent and continuity of care; referral for emergency services; medical records; privacy and security of patient records and exchange of information; prescribing medication and reimbursement; and health education and counselling.
The standard addresses only the medical service component of telemedicine but not the technology, that is, hardware and software; nor does it cover the usage of digital technology in the conduct of surgical or invasive procedures, remotely.
Bowen said, however, that the sector is required to adhere to the Data Protection Act; have high-level encryption and firewall security; and certified doctors registered with respective medical councils.
Brown of Dawgen Global says the regional telehealth sector is expected to generate average revenue per user of US$30.09 this year – which is the equivalent of about $4,600 in Jamaican currency – and that the market is projected to grow at a compound rate of nearly 12 per cent up to 2027.
“The market’s largest segment will be ‘digital fitness and well-being’, with a total revenue value of US$237 million in 2023,” he said.
Advanced Integrated Systems, led by Chairman Douglas Halsall, was one of the early movers in the market in 2016 when it partnered with Indian tech company Suvarna to digitise the records of the University Hospital of the West Indies. Then in May 2017, AIS rolled out a medical practice management system called PAS-MD, for medical practices and large healthcare providers, the features of which included patient scheduling and information, billing, insurance claims processing, lab requisitions, apps for doctors and patients, and a payment gateway. In Jamaica, PAS-MD is said to have a subscriber base of just under 100 medical practitioners and is utilised by the National Health Fund at its pharmacy locations nationwide and for coordination of its benefits programme. It’s also in use at four health centres in The Bahamas.
“We are currently in discussion with other Caribbean islands for the use of our digital health systems, including the telemedicine component. So far, The Bahamas is the only country that has been confirmed to be actively using our product,” AIS said.
MDLink’s proprietary system includes lab test bookings and reporting of the results online, which Bowen said was “the first of its kind” in Jamaica.
Its services also include an online health store, booking of in-office visits and house calls, location of labs using GPS technology, drive-through clinic, and at-home testing, “which increases privacy for conditions like STDs”, Bowen said.
On Thursday, MDLink rebranded the accredited lab it previously acquired in 2022. The lab, which operates in 10 locations, will be integrated with the digital health platform, “allowing lab tests and results to be shared between patient and doctor portals”, he said.
The MDLink platform has about 50,000 registered patients and 250 registered doctors, but screening and approval are still ongoing for some of the medicos, Bowen said.
The telemedicine provider is operational in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, St Lucia, and British Virgin Islands, and is franchising to Cayman Islands in a few months.
“We have a vision for Latin America,” the MDLink founder remarked.