COVID-19: Tele-Medicine Sees 40 to 50 Percent Rise in Calls
“We understand that many people have apprehensions about coronavirus and want to talk to someone qualified to find out what to do. People who feel they may have these symptoms can call our doctors instead of going to the hospitals and risk getting exposed to the virus."Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, Chief Health Strategy Officer, Practo
As confirmed COVID-19 cases in India near 500 as of March 24, and with as many as 30 states and union territories ordering lockdowns - panic around the novel coronavirus is at its peak.
There are many urgent questions swirling around:
How do you know if it’s just a cough or something to be worried about? When do you know if you should get tested if you feel feverish?
Another worry is of getting infected at the hospital or even potentially overburdening the already overburdened healthcare system.
But what does the average Indian do to abate their worries? What to do if you feel you have the symptoms but want some quick clarity?
Enter telehealthcare and online medical support. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also urged people to avoid OPDs for non emergency illnesses
As mental health practitioners move their sessions online, platforms like Practo or Clinikk Healthcare are offering online medical advice from verified medical professionals to you in the safety of your homes.
Telemedicine can address outpatient queries and help screen cases, allowing hospitals to address those that are symptomatic and are critical.
Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, Chief Health Strategy Officer, Practo tells FIT that their tele-consult platform had people calling in for all sorts of ailments and speaking to gynaecologists, cardiologists, sexologists and more. But now, “almost 53 per cent of general consults have been corona related. And this is increasing day by day” he says.
Meanwhile, Clinikk Healthcare - a subscription-based online platform for primary healthcare and insurance, offers doctors who can support 200,000 subscribers in 11 regional languages. Suraj Baliga, co-founder of Clinikk, says they have seen about a 30-40 per cent increase in the volume of calls as well.
In the UK, US and China, there are ways to do telescreenings via teleconsultations too. “We follow the ICMR criteria when talking to patients who feel they have symptoms - like recent travel history of them or people around them,” says Dr Kuruvilla.
“All the doctors on call, about 1000, are all verified. If you want to talk to an Ayurveda or Unani doctor they will be labelled as such, as will an allopathic doctor,” he adds.
Clinikk meanwhile, offers consultations with general practitioners. “They have been trained following the WHO and the health ministry’s protocols.”
If these platforms do find what seems to a symptomatic case, they refer to ICMR and ministry protocols. The next course of action depends on the risk profile of the case, “If it is a high-risk case who has come in contact with confirmed cases and has a travel history, the protocol is home isolation until the healthcare systems can get to them and take them to a testing facility,” says Baliga.
‘Don’t Crowd Hospitals and Spread the Virus’
In times of social (or physical) distancing, it’s important to not rush to the hospital at the slight indication of any symptoms.
Dr Kuruvilla says that their teleconsultation process works to identify specific patients that need to go get tested and thereby eliminates the continuity of the virus.
Accumulating in small areas like clinics is dangerous he adds, “it will suppress immunology. Besides, we are doing close to 50,000 online consults a month,” though this number is sure to increase.
He adds that now people are calling at any time - earlier there was a 9 am to 7 pm regularity, but now “it’s breaking all the rules.”
COVID-19 is a virus that more severely attacks people over 65, but Dr Kuruvilla says most of the calls are from younger people. “Maybe it is because they are more tech-savvy and could be calling in for their elderly relatives?”
mHealth To Ease Public Healthcare Burden & Help Awareness
ICMR had spoken about private players needing to step up to help support public healthcare systems. (You can read about which private labs are offering COVID-19 tests here.)
“There needs to be a public-private partnership to deal with this public health calamity,” says Dr Kuruwilla.
“We cannot increase healthcare infrastructure overnight,” adds Baliga. “Overwhelming it will hurt COVID-19 patients who won’t get beds and will have additional collateral damage to other patients. The first line of check is filtering, like Prime Minister Modi said in his speech (on Thursday, 19 March.)“
Online health (or mHealth) platforms like these serve as the conduit between potential patients and hospitals. “We want to ensure the kits reach the right people at the right time.”
This speaks to the scarcity of testing kits and ensuring there is no wastage in its use.
Practo is also using its site to spread awareness and disseminate verified information through a page dedicated to coronavirus with FAQs, expert information, safety tips, testing information and more. “Any information is verified by our internal team of doctors for authenticity and accuracy,” says Dr Kuruwilla.
FIT wrote about some testing FAQs and where to get tested too.
There is a lot of information asymmetry - someone sneezing at home, plus an erroneous Whatsapp can send people into a tizzy right now.
Baliga says Clinikk Healthcare is using Whatsapp to push out verified information to dispel the fake news that's going around on social media. “We have an app, an online portal and Whatsapp and messaging channels. Reassurance right now is very important”
The best way to contain this, he adds, is simple measures like social distancing or phone screenings that don’t involve going to hospitals.
What about the costs? For now, the call is at Rs 199 at Practo, with a new package of Rs 399 for unlimited calls and consultations.
“We are trying to get government and pro bono doctors,” says Dr Kuruvilla, hinting at a potential price drop.
At Clinikk, Baliga says,
“We have opened up our phone lines to everyone for free for coronavirus queries. You can call for free and speak to a health assistant, a trained paramedic for the initial screening. If required, you can then talk to a doctor. We are giving consultations with doctors, upon request, for free too.”Suraj Baliga
“For example, if someone calls saying they are worried and they have travelled in from Bangalore, the paramedic could give them general advice, as a consultation may not even be required,” he adds. Many interns and interested volunteers are stepping up for this role he says, as anyone can be trained in the screening protocols.
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