Covid-19: Tele-consultations pick up as patients avoid visiting hospitals

Given the strict travel conditions even within cities, several large hospitals in big centres are also working at reduced capacity
As the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 continues to cripple normal life, an increasing number of patients are preferring to consult with the doctors over video and audio calls. This is also promoting an increasing number of hospitals and clinics to invest in technology infrastructure for establishing tele-consultation units.

The Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, a maternity, childcare and fertility care group of hospitals has announced the launch of its tele-consultation service with doctors. This service has been made available across Gurgaon, Noida, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai units of Cloudnine. “It’s our Baby,” a dedicated app built for the purpose, currently has one lakh users. “In the wake the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the use of remote health consultation can be an effective way of triaging potential cases and also can serve as a form of first line of defense, while keeping frontline healthcare staff safe unless there is an urgent need for immediate medical attention/treatment,” said Raviganesh Venkataraman, CEO, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals.

Given the strict travel conditions even within cities, several large hospitals in big centres are also working at reduced capacity. Max Superspecialty Saket and Moolchand Medicity in New Delhi, for example, are both working with very little staff, with only essential and chronic patients' departments working full time.

Practo, India's leading digital health care platform has built a smart matching algorithm that connects a patient to verified and registered doctors, depending on the patient’s health problem, the doctor’s area of specialty and availability.  “Once we have identified a pool of available doctors, we reach out to them in real-time to accept a new consultation. Our unique approach allows us to connect a patient with a doctor 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, Chief Health Strategy Officer, Practo.

Practo claims said it has served millions through its teleconsult services in the last three years since it first began the service. The reach is all over India including tier-2 and tier-3 cities and queries come in 24X7. Each general physician on Practo typically consults 25-30 patients a day. But in the last three weeks, Practo said the number has shot up by three to four times. 

An increase in this number is not physically possible to consult. “This is when teleconsultation becomes the need of the hour, where platforms like Practo that offer telemedicine can enable doctors and increase efficiency so they can consult more patients online,” said Kuruvilla.

Queries on Practo regarding fever, cough, cold, sore throat and body ache have increased by 200 per cent from March 1, 2020 onwards, said Kuruvilla. Teleconsults on Practo are witnessing an average increase of over 100 per cent week-on-week. About 53 per cent of all GP eConsults were related to Coronavirus, said Kuruvilla. Most of the queries are from people in the age group of 20 - 30. About 30-35 per cent of the consultations are from women.

He added that close to 40 per cent of all teleconsultations on the Practo platform are happening from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities. Non-Metro cities from where most of the queries are coming from include - Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Bhubaneshwar and Indore. Also, the Metro cities from where most of the queries are coming from include Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Chennai.

Experts say that India has a wealth of medical expertise, yet it is also one of the largest countries in the world in terms of both area and population. Telemedicine allows people to consult a verified doctor instead of self-medicating and do all that affordably. Moreover, location is no longer a constraint - a person in a small town in Andhra Pradesh can consult a specialist in Delhi, without having to move and travel the distance.                                         

Larger technology firms like Microsoft have also been working in the field of healthcare for a long time now. As part of its efforts in India, Microsoft has helped build a "COVID-19 Risk Assessment Scanner" in partnership with Apollo Hospitals. The scanner is built on Microsoft's Azure platform and works like a conversational bot. It asks basic questions about the person's age, gender, body temperature, symptoms,  and so on and suggests if they need to go for further assessment or tests for coronavirus. 

 While cases in India continue to rise largely in line with the curve observed in more affected countries like the US, Spain and Italy, experts fear that the worst is yet to come. However, if these services manage to scale up to reach a sizable part of the population with some degree of success, it will be an interesting case study in India's response to the pandemic.  

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