Former Apple Inc. Executive, author and eHealth technology investor, John Sculley, predicts telemedicine and online telemental health services will soon become the norm for people seeking confidential counselling and routine medical care.

Sculley’s belief in telemedicine stems from his investment in four healthcare companies related to eHealth, specifically MDLive, an online telehealth portal and app offering licensed physician-care, and Misfit, a wearables company.

MDLive’s recent acquisition of Breakthrough Behavioural, an online therapy service, is in line with the company’s strategy to expand their online services to include a network of mental health professionals offering behaviour and life coaching through email and secure video conferencing.

Towers Watson recently released a study that found that telemedicine could save US companies more than $6 billion in annual healthcare costs. “Telemedicine is increasingly perceived by employers and the government as a means to cut health costs. In addition, states have been requiring that private insurance plans cover telemedicine services,” said Sculley.

The uptake of telemedicine in South Africa is on the rise, but a lack of governance and data to support economic benefit hinder its implementation on a large scale. Several projects to provide telemedicine services for mental health are underway and according to Head of the Telemedicine Department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Maurice Mars, mental health services lend themselves very well to the use of telemedicine tools and can integrate seamlessly into a health care practitioners’ workflow.

“We haven’t yet been able to isolate the economic benefit of these services and we have to include socio-economic benefits into the calculation to have a clear understanding of the impact and potential of telemedicine in mental health,” said Mars in a recent interview with eHealthNews.

Apart from projects largely underway in KZN, A range of billed and free online telemental health services are available nationally such as those offered by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has been quoted as saying that telemedicine has the potential to bridge the gap between the need and available health services to deliver healthcare more efficiently and cost effectively, particularly in light of NHI.

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