Could telemedicine become the first line of defence in India’s fight against coronavirus?

Distress call?
Distress call?
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Worried about their wellbeing amid the coronavirus outbreak, Indians are reaching out to doctors over the mildest symptoms. And since they are under lockdown, they’re flocking to teleconsultation.

Since the beginning of March, the number of patients seeking teleconsultation on Practo, India’s leading digital health care platform, has more than tripled from around 30 such cases per doctor on a usual day. Queries regarding fever, cough, cold, sore throat and body ache have increased by 200% during the time, the company told Quartz.

Locked down in their houses, Indians are no longer reaching out to doctors only during post-office hours, Practo said, as doctors are getting higher consultation requests for time slots as late as 11pm and 3am.

To meet this rise in demand, Practo has increased the number of doctors available for teleconsultation on its platform by almost 50%. The company has also reached out to more doctors and hospitals to join its platform, it said.

“You’re trying to keep a social distance so the virus doesn’t transmit when you’re accumulating a lot of patients and putting them in small 10×12 chambers in OPD (outpatient department), nursing home, and hospital waiting rooms,” said Alexander Kuruvilla, Practo’s chief health strategy officer. “That doesn’t help the cause.”

Paying medical attention

China, the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as  the UK and the US, “screened through teleconsult as much as they could,” Kuruvilla points out. Not only does it save time and cut commutes, when doctors see patients over audio or video calls, the facilities can conserve protective equipment for healthcare workers. India, with its shortage of N95 masks and protective hazmat suits, should take note.

Moreover, India’s healthcare system is already burdened. The country only has 2.3 ICU beds per 100,000 people. By comparison, the US has 34.7. The World Health Organization (WHO) prescribes 1:1000 doctor-patient ratio and India is below that criteria.

“What we intend to do is limit exposure both to doctor and patient since we have already have an acute shortage of healthcare providers,” CMA Belliappa, a Bengaluru-based general physician with 30 years of experience who consults with Practo, told Quartz. While doctors can’t treat patients over calls, “we give them suggestions of where they can go (to get treated),” he added.

Telemedicine can especially help outside the big cities, where medical infrastructure is severely lacking and people have to travel hundreds of kilometers to reach coronavirus test centres. Since the outbreak began, one in five calls to general practitioners on Practo is coming in from smaller cities like Lucknow, Indore, and Bhubaneshwar.

Telemedicine is just one facet of how the world is using technology to fight Covid-19.

Police in Spain have been using drones to monitor people during lockdown campaigns. They’ve also been used to disinfect areas in Daegu, and deliver medical samples and quarantine materials to minimise human contact. China, meanwhile, has designated QR codes to signify a person’s health.

Researchers at China’s Tsinghua University have created a robotic arm on wheels that can perform ultrasounds, take mouth swabs and listen to sounds made by a patient’s organs, usually done with a stethoscope. Although it’s an expensive undertaking—a robot costs RMB 500,000 ($72,000) to make—it can cut out all physical examination, thereby keeping healthcare workers safe.

India’s getting in the race, too. Paras Chopra, founder of New Delhi-based software company Wingify, announced a hackathon for fighting Covid-19 on Mar. 22. Already, people are working on a slew of ideas from location trackers to credits for customers to pre-buy from businesses while they stay closed to 3D-printing ventilators.

All technology, including telemedicine, is “most effective when there are public-private partnerships,” Practo’s Kuruvilla says. “This (pandemic) came all of a sudden. We have not reached that maturity yet. But a lot of discussion is happening and I’m hoping we’ll get there soon.”