Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to get used to a whole new range of habits: washing our hands religiously, carrying about a small bottle of hand sanitiser, sneezing into the crook of our elbow and keeping a distance from people outside our social bubble.
Those are likely to become more or less fixed even once Covid-19 is gone into the background. Like the doctor’s visit conducted over the phone. Once a matter of necessity, that’s another habit likely to become standard practice.
According to De Tijd, federal health minister Maggie De Block (Open VLD), who outside of politics is also a GP, is working on a set of rules to govern tele-consults post-coronavirus.
Under the rules of the lockdown, patients requiring a consultation were ordered to call their doctor first, and follow their advice from there.
In cases where Covid-19 appeared to be the diagnosis, the patient would be advised to present at a hospital emergency room.
In other cases where medical attention was required, the doctor could make a home visit while taking the necessary precautions.
For that tele-consult, doctors could bill €20 to the Inami, the federal office that handles medical costs. Now, the paper reports, the Inami is working on making that arrangement permanent.
“Patients should be able to contact their health carer from a distance even after corona,” it quotes De Block as saying.
While tele-consults were possible before the pandemic, doctors did not encourage the practice because they were not reimbursed for their time. Once they were, however, the practice became common.
According to the Christian mutuality CM, doctors carried out 1.3 million tele-consults between mid-March and the end of May, one in three of all consultations.
For patients affiliated to the socialist mutuality, telephone contacts were made 485,000 times between mid-March and the end of April, almost half of all consultations.
Remote consults are even becoming a thing for hospital specialists, according to Doctena, which handles reservations for 4,000 doctors in Belgium.
“Technology was never the obstacle,” said Christiaan Polet, the head of IT at UZ Gent. The emergency changed everything.
“Many doctors saw the added value, for example for the follow-up of chronic patients.”
And chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis or high blood pressure are a growing field in Belgium, with one in three people in the country suffering from one, according to figures from 2018. The figure can only grow in the future, especially as medical care for those conditions is constantly improving.
One aspect of the tele-consult that is likely to change is the portion of the fee that is paid by the patient. During the pandemic that was zero, with the Inami paying the doctor directly.
De Block, however, is planning to return to a system of making the patient also pay for a tele-consult, to avoid a discrepancy with patients who come for a normal consultation.
That sum, referred to as remgeld in Dutch and ticket modérateur in French, was originally intended as something of a deterrent to discourage people from visiting the doctor where it was not strictly necessary.
De Block intends to maintain that aspect, especially since picking up the phone and speed-dialling the doctor is a good deal easier than going along to the surgery.