LETTER | Telemedicine - ensuring continuous cancer care during pandemic

Dr Hadijah Yunos et al

Modified 11 Jun 2021, 2:55 pm

LETTER | The Global Cancer Observatory (Globocan) reported that in 2020, the cumulative new cancer and cancer death cases in Malaysia were 48,639 and 29,350, respectively. 

The inability of cancer patients to receive adequate medical support are among the factors for higher mortality during the Covid-19 pandemic. Cancer patients are also at higher risk of developing more serious complications, a higher rate of hospitalisation and even death.

Malaysia has seen a surge in Covid-19 incidence in recent weeks. As one of the measures to contain the Covid-19 virus, the government needed to enforce a nationwide total lockdown. During this period, most of the ‘regular visits’ for cancer patients have either had to be postponed or cancelled. 

Thus, in some countries such as in Europe, telemedicine allows doctors to take care of their patients remotely. Perhaps we could provide a similar service here in Malaysia. 

Telemedicine is not new in Malaysia. In 1997, the Telemedicine Act or Akta Teleperubatan 1997 was enacted to strengthen healthcare delivery via telecommunications, information and multimedia technologies. 

It is used to reshape the healthcare delivery system by becoming more virtual, distributed and integrated, resulting in better healthcare delivery and efficiency. However, for the past 24 years, the act has not yet been enforced and it was mainly for provider-to-provider consultation.

Other barriers to patients while accessing telemedicine are technical issues, broadband access and digital literacy. These apply more towards the patients from low-income families and those who live in remote areas. As of now, broadband access is not widely available across the country and patients need to be trained and literate before they could start to use the technology. 

All these issues require involvement from other agencies before telemedicine can be utilised among them. However, Malaysia could adopt the success story from India - the Kerala Oncology Network or OncoNET Kerala, which was launched in 2001. 

The project consists of an oncology network at the Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) in Trivandrum which provides telemedicine services in cancer detection, treatment, pain relief and patient follow-up at RCC and its centres which are far away from the hospital. All the centres were converted into teleclinics, connected to the RCC through their satellite communications.

It is timely for Malaysia to revise and enforce its Telemedicine Act to allow for patients’ consultation and prescription as it offers benefit for oncology services, especially during this lockdown period. 

Other than that, partnerships between public health systems and entrepreneurial providers of telemedicine are also important to ensure the success of the implementation of telemedicine particularly among those in remote and low-resource settings.

This letter is written by Dr Hadijah Yunos, Dr Mawadda Benhamza, Professor Dr Moy Foong Ming, and Professor Dr Noran N Hairi of the Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC), Kuala Lumpur.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.