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Vodacom/Discovery partnership to allow free online Covid-19 screenings

New facility enables people to understand their risk and consult a virtual healthcare professional for evaluation and advice: Mariam Cassim, Vodacom.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Vodacom and Discovery have joined forces to deliver an online healthcare consultation Covid-19 facility for all South Africans. And, get this – it’s for free. It enables people to understand their personal risk for Covid-19 and, when necessary, schedule a virtual healthcare professional’s time and advice. This is a form of telemedicine, and already people around the world have been using this tool to deal with the coronavirus situation, especially given the apprehension of medical personnel being exposed to potentially ill patients.

To tell us more about the service and how it works, I’m joined on the line by Mariam Cassim, the chief executive officer of Vodacom Financial Services. Thanks very much for joining us, Mariam. What an apt service in a moment like this. It’s a partnership between yourselves and Discovery. I suppose that’s you bringing the communication infrastructure to the party, and Discovery bringing the medical expertise on board. Tell us.

MARIAM CASSIM: Nompu, thanks for having us on the show. Vodacom Financial Services is Vodacom’s fintech arm of the business, focusing really on financial inclusion, as well as medical and healthcare inclusion for all South Africans in this specific partnership with Discovery. We’ve partnered on a virtual healthcare platform that will give people free access to reliable information with streaming and, where necessary, free online medical consultation – specifically to help fight the current Covid-19 crisis.

This will allow Discovery’s bank of medical doctors to reach mobile phone users all over the country.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. So the service is not limited to either Discovery or Vodacom clients – it’s available to all South Africans. So, just tell us how it works in practice, and the website or websites that people need to go and visit.

MARIAM CASSIM: Absolutely. I think the main purpose of this initiative is that it’s not restricted to any customers of any of the brands who have come together to launch this. It’s a pure initiative to help with the Covid-19 crisis.

There are a few easy steps through which users can access the service. Firstly, you can access the Covid-19 information hub, on the Vodacom website as well as on the Discovery website.

There is then a self-screening exercise which the user will go through – really just a few questions which kind of tests whether your risk is high risk or low risk of Covid-19.

If you are considered low risk, we then direct you to an education portal, where we give you a lot of information around prevention of the disease. If you are considered high risk, we then recommend that you book a virtual consultation with a doctor. You can either book one at a specific time or, if there are doctors available on the platform at that point, you can see one immediately.

This virtual consultation just assists with doctors being able to see a patient virtually through a video-call-type facility, which also helps to decrease the risk of infection as you don’t have people needing to go and be face-to-face with the doctor. It also decreases the risk of infection for other patients who may be waiting in the waiting room to see the doctor. This is a really great initiative, an online initiative to be able to still see a doctor.

The doctor will then I guess have the consultation and decide whether you need to be recommended for a pathology test. If you are at high risk for Covid-19, they will then send you a script, via the Internet or WhatsApp or email and so forth, and you can then go to any of the laboratories nationwide to have your testing done.

The result will then be sent back to the doctor, who will then contact the patient again for discussing the result.

NOMPU SIZIBA: And obviously, just for clarity, if that did happen, the patient would go to the clinic or doctor and obviously pay for that test themselves.

MARIAM CASSIM: Correct.

Vodacom and Discovery have contributed R10 million each into the fund. So it’s R20 million to fund just the online virtual consult initially.

If the patient needs to do a pathology test, that will be for the patient’s own account.

However, the idea with this is to get many doctors onto the network, such that the doctors can either volunteer their time, or they can submit a claim if they do like charging. But the idea is that, if this initiative works, it’s a great opportunity for external companies to come in and support it and help to maybe fund the pathology tests for patients.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Like with anything else, you don’t want people to just use the system for the sake of it. So presumably it’s only those individuals who are worried that they have symptoms, or may have come into contact with a Covid-19 person, that you’d encourage to use the service; otherwise it overburdens it.

MARIAM CASSIM: Absolutely. We’ve also a facility which Vodacom customers can access by dialling *111#. That is a great information platform for them to go to; it also helps you to assess whether you are high risk or low risk, and it asks the specific questions that you just mentioned.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. And, just for clarity, in terms of when you go on and use the facility, does it matter in terms of cost whether you are a Discovery client or a Vodacom client – or not? In other words, if you’re not either a Discovery or a Vodacom client, is there some cost that you have to incur in the whole process?

MARIAM CASSIM: Practically, from a technical point of view, what we’ve been able to do is zero-rate the journey or the website journey for Vodacom customers.

So Vodacom customers who access the journey will not pay any data costs for the duration of the entire experience.

NOMPU SIZIBA: But of course people on other networks will incur some sort of cost.

MARIAM CASSIM: Correct. They will incur the normal data cost for a video call or for utilising the website journey.

NOMPU SIZIBA: So, in terms of this service, which is really apt for this time, and also in terms of limiting the potential to infect your medical doctor, do you think that going forward this type of initiative might actually boost demand for telemedicine – which is not so popular in South Africa – so that people avoid things like queues, and they get attended to more timelessly?

MARIAM CASSIM: That is such a good point because, if you look at what’s going on globally in the world of fintech, where the financial services were being disrupted completely through digitisation, for us it is a great opportunity to test how telemedicine could change and improve the lives of ordinary people.

So, to your point of long queues and trying to find a doctor who is available between 8am and 5pm, this should allow doctors to be able to work at any hour of the day. They could see patients between 9pm and 10pm at night, if that’s the time they feel they want to work.

You could have patients who maybe can’t get to see a doctor because they have an 8am to 5pm job, and don’t want to take off work, but do virtual consulting in the evening. So it just creates a much bigger and broader opportunity for giving people access to affordable and digital healthcare going forward.

So we’re really hoping that on the back of this initiative it could be something that’s recognised by the different regulatory bodies in terms of how it could become a way of the future.

NOMPU SIZIBA: In your communication with the regulatory authorities around this, because it is a health issue and it’s a health interaction, presumably they’ve given it their blessing – because I understand that ordinarily they wouldn’t approve of people having a medical consult with a physician that they’d never dealt with before.

MARIAM CASSIM: Correct. It is for that exact reason that we have set this up without the customer having to pay for the consult. This is limited only to Covid-19. The idea was that we’re not breaching any of the regulatory laws around asking a patient to actually pay for the visit. It’s fully funded by this fund. And we’ve seen a great number of doctors volunteering their time and not even charging for the consult, just because it is an initiative that’s been put together specifically for the purpose of addressing Covid-19.

NOMPU SIZIBA: And when does it take effect? It’s live now, as we speak, isn’t it?

MARIAM CASSIM: Absolutely. We launched it yesterday after two weeks of really, really long nights for both the Discovery team and the Vodacom team. We launched yesterday, and it’s live as we speak.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. And just for the benefits of the listeners – just advise us one more time where they need to go to be able to access the service.

MARIAM CASSIM: From a Vodacom point of view they can go to www.Vodacom.co.za and click on the Covid-19 banner, which they’ll see on the screen. Alternatively they can go to our information hub by dialling *111#.

They can also visit the Discovery website, which is www.Discovery.co.za, and enter the journey through that platform as well.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Many thanks for your time today, Mariam.

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