business

Teleconsultation comes to the aid of non-Covid patients

May 16, 2020

[14 May 2020] CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY—While most businesses are shuttered, and office employees are working from home, the medical community must work hard to stay open to patients yet be tightly guarded by Covid-19 restrictions. The challenge for doctors is how to continue treating their patients even though their clinics are closed.  How can they “meet up” with patients without exposing themselves and their families to the risk of infection? Technology provides a solution: teleconsultation.  It minimizes the need to travel and face to face contact, thus protecting both the patients and health professionals from exposure to health risks.  For the first time in her 30-year practice, Dr. Corazon Mata attends to patients remotely. She is in charge of the obstetrics and gynecology hotline for the Telekonsulta Service of the Northern Mindanao Medical Center (NMMC).  Every day, she fields queries from ob-gyn patients all over Region 10, which covers the provinces of Misamis Oriental, Misamis Occidental, Bukidnon, Camiguin and Lanao del Norte. With the rapid spread of Covid, other health cases have been overshadowed, with many hospitals like NMMC recording a significant drop in patient consultations at the emergency room and out-patient clinics. The NMMC is a tertiary public hospital and one of the Covid referral centers in the region of 5 million. “This is the main reason we decided to start the NMMC Telekonsulta Service,” says Dr. Aris Austria, Telekonsulta project leader. “We were concerned particularly for our patients with chronic conditions requiring long-term medical care. Every healthcare facility should not focus only on handling the Covid-19 crisis but also consider minimizing ‘collateral damage’ on non-Covid patients.”  The NMMC Telekonsulta Service targets noncritical cases and aims to provide a venue for patients to directly consult medical professionals through their mobile phones.  Smart Communications partnered with the hospital by providing them with LTE phones capable of unlimited texts and calls to all networks and data connection. Each phone was assigned to doctors handling a specific field of specialization, such as pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery or internal medicine. Since the start of the project in late March, the NMMC doctors have collectively handled more than 400 consultations, sent out almost 200 electronic prescriptions and facilitated around 50 referrals. They have also set appointments for actual clinic consultations for cases where a clinic visit is absolutely necessary. “A good part of diagnosing a patient is doing a complete physical,” says Dr. Ramon Yap, an internist-gastroenterologist. “But I believe the majority of patients can be safely managed through teleconsultation, albeit some patients may really have to be seen by a doctor in a clinic or referred to an appropriate institution like NMMC.” The experience is new to his 17-year practice, but he says doctors have to adapt. “The threat to the doctors is very real. We also have to think about protecting ourselves and our families, aside from trying to give comfort and healing to our patients. The limited resources that we have in our locality has made the practice of medicine very daunting and probably even unsettling.” As of the first week of April, the Department of Health (DOH) Region 10 had identified more than 4,000 persons under monitoring and around 300 under investigation. With more cases of Covid-19 positive patients and new admissions of suspected cases, the region’s health officials are not letting their guard down. The doctors admit that there are limitations to what they can perform without a face-to-face interaction, but they are finding ways to cope with this. Dr. Austria, a pediatrician, reports that teleconsultation has necessitated more parental engagement. He tells parents, “listen to the child’s breathing, feel their skin or pulse, touch the tummy, and describe what you find.” It is not the ideal way of examination, he concedes, so doctors should be cautious in utilizing information drawn from a teleconsultation to diagnose a patient’s condition. Pediatrics has the highest number of consultations. Dr. Jannie Lyne Palisbo, whose clinic is closed, is grateful that she can continue to treat her patients from home. “It is reassuring to both the patient and us physicians,” she says. Dr. Austria opines, “Teleconsultation should remain an option for patients under any circumstances that call for it, to hasten medical interventions, and to keep NMMC accessible to all the people in Region 10.”  With doctors and patients engaged in a back-and-forth exchange of information during teleconsultation, he appreciates that Smart ensures unhampered communications. The unlimited texts and calls are “a huge advantage,” enabling doctors to attend to as many patients as possible, he adds. Dr. Peter Quiaoit, NMMC medical training officer, also thanked Smart for making the out-patient department services “a phone call away” in the time of crisis.  “Smart is committed to providing innovative communications solutions that help fight the Covid pandemic.  The NMMC has taken a new path, using technology to enable their doctors to treat patients despite the current restrictions.  That’s why we are quite happy to support their initiative,” said Mon Isberto, Smart public affairs head. This being the institution’s first time to implement teleconsultation, the Telekonsulta team faced a lot of challenges, including a lack of proper guidelines or standard operating procedures, especially in consideration of patients’ informed consent and data privacy. Dr. Austria adds, “We also lacked essential materials, gadgets and enough volunteers to keep teleconsultation running. However, with support from our hospital administration and private companies like Smart, we were able to set it up eventually.” With the proper equipment and appropriate systems in place, teleconsultation will surely be part of the future of medical practice. As access to the internet and data-capable phones increases, there will be huge improvements in teleconsultation results, lowering the risk of misdiagnosis. With the Covid-19 pandemic far from over, and the risks remaining for even longer, interventions such as this will become part of the new normal, and technology will play a huge part.

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Food industry expects minimal impact on food supply amid ECQ

May 15, 2020

THE country's food industry such as Aboitiz food business unit Pilmico Foods Corporation echoed the government's assertion on sufficient food supply amid uncertainties brought about by the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.     “Pilmico’s business continuity plans are in place and running, and this has allowed us to operate business as usual to meet the needs of our stakeholders," said Tristan Aboitiz, president and CEO of Pilmico Foods Corporation, in a statement on Tuesday.     "We have rigorously implemented our strict biosecurity processes to ensure the safety of our teams who report to work, and our supply chain has remained largely intact during the various ECQs (enhanced community quarantine) that have been implemented across the country. This means that our facilities are prepared to continuously cater to the requirements of our customers, which should allow us to deliver our products and meet their needs,” he said.     During the last meeting of the Inter-agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), the Department of Agriculture (DA) presented the food supply outlook for 2020, with most commodities actually forecast to end at a surplus by year-end.     In April, the DA was assigned to chair the Task Group on Food Security created by the IATF-EID.     According to the adjusted DA report, the projected supply by the end of December 2020 will be 94 days worth for rice, 234 days for corn, two days for fish, six days for vegetables, and 253 days for chicken.     Pilmico assured the public and its stakeholders that its operations remain normal.     “As a leadership team, we have spent the last few weeks learning as much as we can about the disease, and assessing how it has impacted and will continue to impact our industry. It is critical that we understand how it affects our team members, customers, and communities, so we can make the necessary changes to different aspects of our operations,” Aboitiz said.     “Our company remains committed to helping sustain the food value chain by consistently being present and delivering raw materials needed to continue food production,” Aboitiz said.     “The flour and feed mills in Iligan and Tarlac, as well as farms, continue to operate, serving the needs of the customers despite challenges in logistics and distribution which can be attributed to COVID-19,” he added.     Aboitiz said that Pilmico’s Southeast Asian facilities are operating normally as well.     Last year, the company fully acquired Gold Coin, an international food group that operates within Southeast Asia (SEA), making Pilmico a significant regional player.     “We are currently focused on ensuring that our current production facilities across the (SEA) region are optimized and that utilization is maintained at a high level so that we can adequately cater to the needs of our customers,” said Pilmico and Gold Coin Food Group President and CEO Hubert de Roquefeuil.     “Needless to say, this includes integrating seamlessly with Food Group Philippines, in order to optimize synergies in procurement and cross-selling across countries,” he said. (PR)

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Local airlines cancel commercial flights until May 31

May 15, 2020

PHILIPPINE Airlines (PAL), Cebu Pacific, Cebgo and Philippines AirAsia on Wednesday announced the extension of the suspension of their commercial flights until May 31.     The local carriers issued their advisories after the government’s decision extending the so-called “community quarantine” period in Metro Manila and other areas until the end of May.     PAL, operated by PAL Holdings, Inc., said: “We confirm that all Philippine Airlines domestic flights to or from our hubs in Manila, Cebu and Clark will remain canceled up to May 31, 2020.”     The flag carrier also said it was “evaluating the possibility of flying international routes and/or domestic routes to and from its Davao hub, in coordination with concerned government authorities.”     “We will announce any planned flights once these are finalized,” PAL added.     PAL plans to operate a reduced number of weekly flights on most domestic routes and on selected international routes by June 1. “But this will depend on the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) conditions: community quarantine restrictions, travel bans imposed by various governments and their impact on  passenger demand, and above all on the public health and safety situation in each of the countries that PAL serves,” it said.     Affected PAL passengers can convert their tickets to a travel voucher. They may also rebook their tickets for free or request a refund without penalties.     Cebu Pacific, operated by Cebu Air, Inc., and its subsidiary Cebgo said its domestic and international flights remain canceled from May 16 to 31.     Philippines AirAsia, Inc. also canceled all its domestic and international flights until the end of May.     Cebu Pacific and Cebgo said affected passengers can rebook their travel tickets for free, place the full cost of their tickets in a travel fund valid for one year, or request a full refund.     “Processing of refunds will start after the Community Quarantine is lifted and regular work schedules resume. However, due to the unprecedented volume of requests for refunds, the process will take as long as three (3) to four (4) billing cycles,” Cebu Pacific said.     For its part, Philippines AirAsia said its guests with existing flight bookings made on or before 12 May 2020 with a departure date between March 23 and July 31, 2020 can select any new travel date before October 31, 2020 on the same route for an unlimited number of times without any additional cost, subject to seat availability.     Philippines AirAsia also said its guests can choose to retain the value of their tickets in the AirAsia BIG Member account for future travel with the airline to be redeemed within 730 calendar days from the issuance date.     “The travel date of the new booking can fall on any date within the published flight schedule on airasia.com,” it added.     AirAsia Group Berhad announced recently the new rules that its passengers will have to follow when flight operations resume after the government-imposed lockdown period. It said guests will be required to bring and wear their own face masks before, during and after flight. Guests without masks will be denied boarding.     PAL assured the public that all its aircraft have air filtration systems, and all its crew will be in full personal protective equipment to protect every passenger on board against viruses. Social-distancing cabin seating options as well as simplified meal or snack service will also be carried out.     Cebu Pacific passengers, as in other airlines, will also be required to wear face masks upon entry at the airport terminal and for the duration of the flight.     The budget carrier will minimize face-to-face contact between its ground staff and passengers.

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SMC abandons Holcim buy as PCC closes to end review

May 15, 2020

THE Philippine Competition Commission (PCC) has learned that San Miguel Corp. (SMC) pulled out its plan of acquiring Holcim Philippines, Inc. (HPI) when the antitrust body is nearly finished with the second phase of the review of the transaction.     SMC made a disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange Monday about backing out from the deal but PCC said it has yet to receive formal notice from both parties withdrawing the transaction.     SMC subsidiary First Stronghold Cement Industries Inc. (FSCII) will no longer buy the 85.73 percent share of HPI after the agreement has expired in accordance with its terms.     The acquisition deal amounts to USD2.15 billion.     “The Commission notes that the 10 May 2020 deadline was internally agreed upon by the transacting parties and was within their prerogative to extend as needed,” the PCC said in a statement Tuesday.     The PCC is doing the Phase 2 review of the transaction but was suspended, along with all proceedings, due to the enhanced community quarantine.     SMC and HPI have yet to get PCC’s nod after its Merger and Acquisition Office flagged competition concerns arising from the transaction, such as monopoly in Northwest Luzon and increased market power and potential collusion among inter-related cement companies controlled by FSCII in the Northeast Luzon, Central Luzon, and Greater Metro Manila areas.     “The Phase 2 review of the transaction was suspended upon the parties’ submission of voluntary commitments. PCC rejected the proposed commitments after they were found insufficient to address the competition concerns, reverting the transaction to Phase 2 review. The parties, however, have yet to file their respective comments to answer the competition concerns raised in the SOC,” the antitrust body said. (PNA)

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Finance chief sees '20 deficit to be around P1-T

May 15, 2020

GOVERNMENT expenditures for coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is expected to increase the budget deficit to around PHP1 trillion this 2020.     This was disclosed by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III Wednesday but assured the public that the government was in a good financial position even before the pandemic hit.     The inter-agency Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) has set a 3.2-percent budget deficit cap for this year amounting to PHP677.6 billion.     Dominguez said there are lots of numbers that economic managers are currently looking at, but cited “the first number you have to figure out (is) what exactly is going to be our deficit for the year.”     “And our estimate is about a trillion pesos, around a trillion,” he said.     Dominguez said the government’s four-pillar Covid-19 response is being funded by the tax collections, the dividends from government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs), and loans, among others.     He said that although collections of taxes have been delayed due to postponement of filing of income tax returns (ITR) and other related documents because of the quarantine period, the government will still be able to collect these.     He added the government was able to receive record-high PHP120 billion dividends from GOCCs, and this will be a plus for the Covid-19 response program.     The government has signed several loan agreements with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB), among others.     These include the loan pact with ADB that allows the Duterte government to access up to USD1.5 billion in budgetary support for Covid-19 programs and the USD100-million loan from the WB.     Dominguez said they are also in discussions with the governments of Japan, Korea, China, and France for “project-based bilateral financing.”     He declined to give specifics on where the government’s Covid-19 response financing currently is since they are still awaiting the reports until end-April, but vowed to disclose this once the data is available.     “We are exactly where we want to be,” he added.     Meanwhile, Dominguez said Finance officials “are willing to look” at the Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act (CITIRA) that Senators plan to pass to help companies recover from the economic impact of the global pandemic.     CITIRA is part of the government’s tax reform program that aims to correct the country’s tax system.     Dominguez earlier said Senate Bill No. 1357, or the CITIRA, targets to make incentives given to companies more targeted, which will allow the country to be more competitive in the region.     If this bill is approved this year, the special tax rate on gross income will be increased immediately this year from the present five percent to eight percent then to nine percent next year, and to 10 percent by 2022.     On Wednesday, Dominguez said they are “willing to look at it (CITIRA) and most likely cut it further more quickly than originally planned.” (PNA)

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PH banking system resilient vs. impact of health crisis

May 15, 2020

REFORMS instituted in the past serve as buffers for the Philippine banking system vis-à-vis the impact of the global pandemic caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Governor Benjamin Diokno said.     In a briefing aired over the central bank’s Facebook page Thursday, Diokno said the domestic banking system and the Philippine economy in general is facing the pandemic “from a position of strength.”     He said the domestic financial system is the country’s first line of defense against the pandemic, and the banking industry is up for this task since it remains adequately capitalized with total banking assets accounting for 81.7 percent of the financial system’s resources as of last February.     “Reforms have been put in place to maintain sufficient buffers in times of crisis and ensure business continuity to serve financial consumers and to keep the economy going,” he said.     The sector’s overall loan quality “was satisfactory”, with a non-performing loan (NPL) ratio of 2.1 percent, he said.     Deposits remain the banks’ main funding source with a share of 85.2 percent of the total.     Capital adequacy ratio (CAR), a gauge of banks’ financial strength, of universal and commercial banks (U/KBs), stood at 15.4 percent on a solo basis, and 16 percent on consolidated basis as of end-2019.     These are higher than BSP’s 10-percent minimum threshold and Bank of International Settlements’ (BIS) 8-percent minimum requirement.     Total portfolio grew by 10.2 percent year-on-year as of last February.     “I believe the banking system is now benefiting from prudential reforms carried out during the last 20 years. Moving forward, the BSP will continue to pursue proactive measures aimed at further strengthening the banking system,” Diokno said. (PNA)

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