The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing Latin Americans to reassess their reluctance to seek medical advice from sources other than a trip to a doctor’s surgery. Such a step requires better understanding of the risks regarding online diagnosis and fake news but, with the right innovations, telemedicine could yet have a revolutionary effect on medical practices in the region.

Since Brazil sent home around 8,500 Cuban doctors in early 2019 to create jobs for nationals, the continent-sized country has struggled to find medical professionals willing to be posted to rural areas. More than 1,000 Brazilian doctors quit their new posts within the first three months, leaving the country’s more isolated communities underserved and at-risk.

The situation was made worse by Brazil’s Central Medical Board approving telemedicine only to revoke it less than three weeks later. It had received more than 1,400 complaints and calls for delay from local doctors and medical entities. Now though, COVID-19 is forcing the industry to evolve quickly — and Brazilians appear to approve.

A new study from Sherlock Communications in collaboration with Toluna Insights, found only 4% of Brazilian respondents do not trust telemedicine, the lowest level of distrust across Latin America’s big six, which includes Mexico (7%) Argentina (7.5%), Colombia (7%), Peru (9%) and Chile (6%). With a population more open to obtaining initial advice remotely, telemedicine could bring down the number of patients visiting surgeries, allowing doctors to prioritise those in most need.

The failure of this type of technology so far can be explained by a lack of tangible benefits, financial restrictions, official resistance, lack of experience and inertia within the health system. The WHO also highlights high costs, a lack of technical knowledge, and fragile infrastructure as barriers for its adoption in developing countries. With focused objectives and investment in the right places, digital innovations such as Artificial Intelligence can overcome many of these issues.

With the coronavirus making online consultations essential in order to limit spread, Latin America has witnessed a spike in searches for reliable health information. That too brings problems though. People are increasingly aware of the spread of fake news, yet trust in social media remains way too high. According to the new study, almost 50% of Latin Americans surveyed trust what they read on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter.

That is not to say social media cannot be valuable both in times of a health crisis and in more normal times. The problem is not the platform as such, but rather the source of the information.

Going forward, the use of technology in Latin America’s health industry is here to stay. If the region can embrace that future while also continuing to educate its citizens on how to differentiate between trustworthy and tricksters, it may well prove a rare positive for the region during a period of such sustained suffering.