Telemedicine: protecting patient information remains paramount

Global utilisation of telemedicine has grown rapidly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and particularly in South Africa. This stems from the national lockdown and a potentially significantly extended impact on normal access to various forms of healthcare.


Telemedicine can materially improve the lives of citizens, making care accessible and preserving the livelihoods of healthcare practitioners. 

Digital teleconference services like Zoom, WeChat Work, Microsoft Teams and Slack have experienced a surge in usage as the global economy attempts to incorporate remote working environments. The same uptake in interest applies to healthcare services.

Remote working may raise many challenges, including the increased risk of cyber breaches.  This arises if healthcare practitioners connect to unsecured Wi-Fi networks and use personal devices without adequate anti-virus systems or firewalls in place to block malware. Inevitably, healthcare practitioners possess extremely confidential and personal data.

Health practitioners wishing to practice telemedicine should follow the Health Professions Council of South Africa's General Ethical Guidelines for Good Practice in Telemedicine (Guidelines). However, there are other risks to consider in the context of data privacy and cybersecurity. 

The Guidelines, which dovetail quite well with POPI requirements, extend existing ethical rules on confidentiality and security of patient information to telemedicine, especially on transmission and storage. They emphasise that every healthcare practitioner engaging in telemedicine should take responsibility for the quality of service delivered as well as the confidentiality, security and safety of patients' information.

Healthcare practitioners are urged to ensure that all software they use in their telemedicine practices adequately protects patient information, and that they install adequate security software on the personal devices they use for telemedicine.