SDG Talks Vol. 12: Telemedicine: The Rise of Telehealth Services During COVID-19

May 22, 2020

The 21st century has ushered a wave of digital innovation, shaping a ‘new normal’ in our lives, which has never been more apparent than in the current COVID-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus is a health and economic crisis that has given rise to telehealth services in Indonesia, the biggest emerging economy in South East Asia.

UNDP Indonesia’s SDG Talks Vol. 12—conducted online for the second time—focused on answering the global call to action in addressing health inequality through the advancement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda on SDG 3—‘Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all’.

Telemedicine is the use of technology that enables remote healthcare (telehealth). Social distancing restrictions have ensured that online health systems become the current ideal healthcare practice. It limits patient displacement, allocating hospital capacity for critical cases and helps curb the spread of disease; “Telemedicine is the first step in reducing COVID-19 transmission, especially for heavily exposed healthcare professionals, as well as patients. It reduces the possibility of direct physical contact between patients and medical workers where it is necessary,” said Vensya Sitohang, one of the panelists and Director of Health Surveillance and Quarantine at the Ministry of Health.

Telemedicine provides tele-consultations, tele-prescribing, and tele-nursing via not only chat or video calls but also through collaborations with digital transportation application companies such as Gojek and Grab, providing medication for patients at home. The new platform could benefit millions of Indonesians who don’t have access to affordable and reliable health services.

Indonesia already home to several telemedicine companies such as HaloDoc, AloDokter, Practo, ApaSakitku, Dokter Gratis, and GrabHealth. The Ministry of Health has regulated the use of technology on telemedicine with the needed systems prepared in 2019.

“Through the recent cooperation of four telemedicine providers in Indonesia, the Ministry of Health envisions the broader use of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as in the future,” Vensya continued. These services help governments identify and prioritize suspected cases for testing, hospitalization or quarantine in dedicated isolation facilities.

In the move away from traditional health models, the telemedicine platform is particularly effective for Millennials.

“Many young people in Indonesia are connected to the Internet. Using telemedicine, I have consulted with my doctor through a few taps on my smartphone, said Dr. Clarin Hayes, UNDP YouTube Creators for Change Ambassador.

COVID-19 has also been linked to an increase in gender-based violence, especially with regard to accessing healthcare. With women facing greater risk, telemedicine has the potential to provide access to services in situations where in-person consultations may not be possible.

“It is important that telemedicine providers ensure safe spaces and reliable resources or recommendations for patients,” said UNDP Indonesia Gender Specialist, Yenny Widjaja. UNDP Indonesia’s Health Governance Initiative (HEART), in partnership with the Indonesian Government, contributes to strengthening national institutions for equitable access to quality essential social services and social protection for all.

The ongoing unprecedented global crisis has brought telemedicine to a new light and paved the way for the growth of a new, inclusive, whole-of-society healthcare system. It has helped work towards bridging the gap between people from all walks of life and helps society prepare for potential health crises in the future.

“There should be no distinction between online or offline health facilities. Instead, these should be seen more as a whole system to support communities by reducing infection and the workload in the field for medical professionals,” said Dr. Adhiatma Gunawan, Head of Medical Good Doctor.

Despite the promising start of telemedicine in Indonesia, the system is still under development, given the lack of regulations and policies governing the industry. Furthermore, many Indonesians living in rural areas are still unable to access them due to inadequate network or connectivity challenges.

Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided momentum for UNDP Indonesia, through the HEART project, to lay the foundation for transforming the business model into one that both protects and serves all communities, particularly the vulnerable, in receiving telemedicine services.


Writing by Moreen Gorial and Enggi Dewanti

Edited by Ranjit Jose and Tomi Soetjipto