Coronavirus: Could virtual consultation with doctors contain its spread in India?

Doctors could teleconsult and do a preliminary screening of patients and their symptoms, to avoid them coming in to clinics and allowing access to more patients, anywhere in the country

Updated: Mar 16, 2020 04:13:37 PM UTC

Dr. Alexander Kuruvilla is Chief Healthcare Strategy Officer at Practo.

Image: Tong Yu/China News Service via Getty Images

The Coronavirus outbreak has made China a testbed of remote work, education and healthcare. With millions quarantined, thousands affected, major cities under lockdown, technology is being used extensively to identify and eliminate potential transmitters. Startups and companies in China are updating their apps, so food, grocery and parcel delivery can happen without customers and riders even meeting; hospitals are installing contactless lockers, so food can be unlocked by medical staff with the help of QR codes. Children are being homeschooled through live streaming, employees are using virtual meeting tools leading to an increase of several million corporate users in the last fortnight or so.

The Chinese are also finding comfort in consulting doctors online, to know more about their symptoms and alleviate concerns around a possible infection. US agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are encouraging people to consult a doctor over a video, chat or phone, before showing up at clinics.

Let’s understand why this push for remote healthcare makes sense in India: India’s doctor to patient ratio stands at 1:1700, while WHO recommends 1:1000. There are approximately 1.1 beds per 1,000 persons, compared to the world average of 2.7. Our country has a wealth of medical expertise, yet it also one of the largest countries in the world in terms of both area and population. The country’s population density is at 420 people per square kilometre, as compared to China’s, which is around 148 per sq km. Public hospitals are typically overcrowded, while private care stays out of reach for many. In about 6 lakh villages, where 69 percent of India’s population lives, the number of doctors is only a fourth of those in urban areas. Approximately 12 percent patients go without access to primary health care every day.

Teleconsult as the first line of defense
One of the best ways to ensure maximum coverage and medical attention, and minimum spread of germs, is to make use of virtual visits. Virtual healthcare or teleconsulting allows one to reduce exposure while receiving care affordably, from home. It reduces the chances of a person infecting others at clinics and protects healthcare workers against the spread of infections like the Coronaviurus. It can be used effectively as a screening mechanism, whereby only serious cases are advised to go for tests or physical examination, as required.

Public-Private partnership key to spur a rapid response for this outbreak
Technology, along with human expertise, can go a long way in the country’s fight against the Coronavirus. Platforms that offer telemedicine can enable more and more doctors to consult a patient online, and if they find the patient to be at a high risk, can advise one of the two steps: i) go see a doctor physically and alert the physician in advance, ii) contact the respective state health departments who can then conduct tests remotely, iii) advise on self-care and self-quarantine.

It would be a win-win to get government doctors on-board such platforms, so they can pay a virtual visit and advise next steps, including tests at home, if possible.

Sure, teleconsulting may not be able to administer full treatment, but it will definitely make a difference in screening patients, protecting healthcare workers and containing spread of the infection, while also helping with follow-up care when in quarantine.

The writer is Chief Healthcare Strategy Officer at Practo


The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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