Lawmakers seek expansion of e-learning, telemedicine in PH

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With the raging Covid-19 outbreak keeping people in their homes, lawmakers are urging the government to expand the online education and telemedicine initiatives in the country.

In a statement, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said the Department of Education (DepEd) should increase the capacity of its online-based education for the next school year in the event of a prolonged crisis due to Covid-19.

DepEd has recently launched the online platform “DepEd Commons,” which allows public school teachers to support distant learning, give access to online review materials, and use Open Educational Resources (OERs). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines OERs as digital and non-digital teaching, learning and research materials in the public domain, which have been released under an open license. This allows no-cost access, use, adaptation, and non-restricted redistribution.

Since the DepEd Commons was launched in March 17, it now has more than 3.1 million users. There are 27.2 million learners and 840,000 public school teachers nationwide.

DepEd, however, acknowledged that not all learners can access these platforms and materials.

Gatchalian said that DepEd should ensure the continued education of learners without Internet access and learning tablets, especially those in more than 7,000 ‘Last Mile Schools’ in geographically isolated, disadvantaged, and conflict-affected areas. These schools tend to have less than five teachers and 100 learners, 75 percent of whom are indigenous peoples.

The lawmaker also emphasized the need to cover more than 600,000 learners enrolled in the Alternative Learning System (ALS), a parallel learning system for those who do not have access to formal education.

Bagama’t mahalaga ang papel ng online o distant learning sa pagpapatuloy ng edukasyon, kailangan nating siguruhin na patuloy din ang pag-aaral para sa mga hindi nakakagamit ng Internet. Walang mag-aaral ang dapat maiwan,” said Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate Committee on Basic Education, Arts and Culture.

Gatchalian then urged DepEd to increase and maximize the use and distribution of non-digital OERs. He cited the practice of some schools in the United States, where learning materials are printed in packets and distributed for home use. For learners with available devices but limited Internet connection, UNESCO also identified learning platforms that can work offline.

The lawmaker added that in the months leading to the opening of classes, DepEd should ensure the preparedness of students, teachers, and parents in using their distant learning materials.

He said that once the enhanced community quarantine is lifted in Luzon, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) should accelerate the provision of Internet in more public spaces under Republic Act 10929 or the Free Internet Access in Public Spaces Act. The law calls for the provision of free Internet in public spaces such as basic education institutions, state universities and colleges, technical and vocational institutions, and public health facilities, among others.

For his part, Sen. Sonny Angara said there is now a greater need for the development of telemedicine as a viable alternative to physical visits to the doctors.

“We have seen in the past weeks that consults with medical professionals have become very, very difficult. Clinics and hospitals are struggling to cope with the surge in patients seeking medical attention. With Covid-19 being highly contagious, physical visits to physicians is discouraged, which makes the situation even more difficult for the public,” Angara said.

“Patients with Covid-19 could easily spread the virus to the health professionals and the latter could then infect other patients. It’s a vicious cycle which could prove to be fatal not only for the patients, but the health professionals as well. During these times, the use of telemedicine could help bring the necessary health care to our people and more importantly, save lives,” Angara added.

Apart from putting up the infrastructure required for remote consultations, Angara said artificial intelligence could also play a significant role in facilitating the delivery of health services to the people.

Back in 2010, the Congressional Commission on Science Technology and Engineering (COMSTE) already identified “telehealth” as a national priority. At the time, Angara’s father, the late former Senate President Edgardo Angara, as chairman of the COMSTE, noted how telehealth could be “a game-changer in the country.”

Apart from giving people who reside in remote areas access to basic health care services, the elder Angara said that telemedicine will also create the foundation for digital medical records.

At present, the University of the Philippines, Manila-National Telehealth Center has been equipping doctors and health workers with eHealth and telemedicine tools for the delivery of quality health care to patients. It has also been assisting the Department of Health (DOH) in its Doctors to the Barrios program to manage patients in need of specialty care.

The DOH has also announced that free telemedicine consultations to patients who need Covid-19 medical advice, as well as other primary care concerns will be available starting Tuesday, April 7.

Angara said he is set to file the DOH-endorsed bill establishing a Philippine eHealth system and services that covers telehealth and telemedicine.

The proposed bill recognizes eHealth as “equal with other healthcare delivery methods” and seeks to provide the necessary services to all Filipinos, especially in “medically unserved and underserved geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas.” It will provide the policy, regulatory and legal framework for a national eHealth system.

Under the bill, a Health Sector Enterprise Architecture, which shall focus on automation and interoperability of various eHealth services and applications, would be developed and implemented.

The use of electronic prescriptions (e-prescriptions) would be covered under this provision so that during periods when there is a disease outbreak or enhanced community quarantines (ECQ), when securing physical prescriptions would be difficult, individuals would still be able to purchase vital drugs.

Last March 17, the Food and Drugs Administration issued guidelines on the use of e-prescriptions during the ECQ period. “Telemedicine should be an option for our countrymen especially in the age of deadly viruses when people should avoid hospitals but would still be diagnosed by doctors remotely,” Angara said.

Angara also urged the DICT to work on providing all areas of the country with Internet connectivity so that even residents of remote areas will be provided with quality health care through telemedicine.

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