Indians flock for online medical advice to beat coronavirus lockdown blues

Two days after the national lockdown was announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rasheed Begum, a 62-year-old resident of Jhabua, an interior village in the hinterland of Central India, started feeling unwell.

Having undergone a heart surgery a few months ago, she didn't want to travel to the nearest hospital around 46km away.

Her worries were accentuated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as the aged are more vulnerable and are advised not to go out.

The next thing she did was to go to a village-level common services centre run by the telecommunication department of the Indian government, equipped with high-speed internet and cameras.

She consulted her doctor on her health issues and was given medicines using telemedicine facility.

Indians are reaching out to doctors over the mildest symptoms using tele-consultations offered by hospitals. Credit: ITV News

With the lockdown, Indians are reaching out to doctors over the mildest symptoms using tele-consultations offered by hospitals.

Telemedicine is the most transformative change Indian hospitals have made to provide healthcare services in the post-coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

Accessibility has been a perennial problem of the Indian healthcare sector.

According to a report by the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP) in the US, India has a shortage of around six million doctors and two million nurses.

Less people are visiting their GPs in person amid the coronavirus pandemic in India. Credit: ITV News

On March 26 2020, India's health ministry issued telemedicine guidelines enabling doctors to write prescriptions based on telephone conversations that reduce risks of transmission for medical professionals as well as patients. It also reduces the inconvenience to families, caregivers and social sectors.

"We have seen spike of over 10 times and more than 30,000 citizens across the country have benefitted during the month of April, 2020, lockdown period", says Dinesh Tyagi, Chief Executive Officer of CSC e-Governance Services company promoted by Indian government.

"Prior to the lockdown, we had an average of 200-300 telemedicine consultations by 30 doctors of different specialisations daily, resulting in more than 6,000 calls monthly," he added.

With India’s public health expenditure just 1.28% of its GDP, there is a persistent shortage of doctors, health workers and hospital beds in the country, especially in rural areas and densely-populated under-developed states.

With no approved drugs for COVID-19, some people are turning to alternative medicines without evidence that they work. Credit: AP

For a population of 1.36 billion, India has only 1.1million allopathic doctors, and this makes the doctor-population ratio 1:1,457, which is lower than the WHO recommended norm of 1:1,000, according to the National Health Profile, 2019.

Telemedicine can particularly help those outside big cities, where medical infrastructure is severely lacking and people have to travel hundreds of km to reach coronavirus test centres.

With telemedicine services gaining acceptance among the citizens, this could transform the healthcare system and address the urban-rural health divide in the country.

"The telecom operators ensured their networks were up and running to meet the unprecedented surge in demand during lockdown times to provide this kind of services in urban and rural India", says Rajan S Mathews, Director- General of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).

Telemedicine has already helped decongest many of India’s famous hospitals, which have moved its out-patient department services online to enable patients access treatment and care during the lockdown.

This change in behaviour and social norms is expected to last much beyond the current crisis situation and could be seen as a new normal life pattern.

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