Visiting hospitals is a big no for people with pre-existing medical conditions who are at an increased risk during the pandemic. To make up for the gap, over 250 medical professionals provide free consultations over phone calls to patients. By Mudassir Kuloo
After testing positive for COVID-19 in the first week of April this year, 27-year-old Bisma Jan was extremely worried. She was more concerned about her parents’ health than her own. “I was not in favour of my old parents taking me to the hospital as I feared they would be risking infection. I called the toll-free number of Ehsaas International where I was connected to a doctor in Saudi Arabia. For the next two weeks, apart from providing regular consultations, the doctors also prescribed medicines and advised measures that had to be followed during the period of home isolation. They would push me to keep a check on my oxygen saturation level regularly and played a major role in boosting my morale,” shared Bisma, a resident of Srinagar’s Rajabagh. After spending 10 days isolated at home, she tested negative and expressed, “I was relieved that the doctors were so cordial and I felt comfortable enough to call them any time since they assured me that they were available for me 24x7.”
In July last year, when the novel Coronavirus was slowly tightening its stranglehold on India, around 250 Kashmiri doctors, serving overseas and in the Valley had joined hands to set up telemedicine consultation services. The initiative was named the Kashmir Health Care Support Group. This team, which included general physicians, cardiologists, chest specialists, orthopaedists, general surgeons, psychiatrists and pathologists, had collaborated with a non-profit organisation ‘Ehsaas International’ for using their toll-free helpline to receive calls from patients. During the last year, these doctors have been catering to not only those who were affected by COVID-19 but to high-risk patients as well. Ghulam Qadir, a diabetic and high blood pressure patient, was a regular visitor to a hospital in Srinagar. During the last year, he did not visit a doctor as such patients are at a higher risk of catching an infection and developing severe complications because of low immunity.
“I have been taking the advice of doctors over the phone. Besides prescribing medicines, they advise me about the diet that I should follow and the precautions I need to take to protect myself from this deadly virus. I also received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccination after consulting a doctor on this helpline,” explained Ghulam.
A senior consultant cardiac anaesthesiologist who would like to remain unnamed, a Kashmiri doctor based in the Gulf, is one among those who conceptualised the initiative for patients last year. “Initially, we were a small group of doctors. Slowly, we started receiving support from doctors based in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Many doctors serving in Jammu and Kashmir are also a part of this endeavour,” he said. The reason behind the initiative was to ensure medical support to patients who were unable to visit hospitals amid the pandemic.
They provide medical advice, create awareness among patients and even provide e-prescription when required. They also maintain records for each patient for easy and effective follow-up. “We have devised a proper mechanism for smooth functioning of the telemedicine consultation. Urgent medical or surgical calls are managed by two ‘first responder’ groups. While most calls are related to COVID-19, kidney ailments, diabetes, blood pressure and psychiatric issues, there are different groups such as endocrinology and cardiology where senior consultant doctors provide consultations to a patient as required,” he explained.
Hakim Mohammad Ilyas, a representative of Ehsaas International, informed that they have prepared rosters of over 250 doctors who remain available 24x7. “Sometimes, we receive 500 calls in a day on our toll-free number 18008892729. We connect patients with the doctors who are available at that time. Initially, this service was only for residents of J&K but now patients across the country call on our toll-free number. Thousands of people in and outside J&K have availed this service since July, last year,” Hakim stated. The toll-free number is supported by 10 lines at the backend to avoid any inconvenience to the patients. The service was started to support the health infrastructure of J&K that was overwhelmed by the high number of COVID-19 cases. According to Hakim, proper approval was obtained from the concerned authorities to run a teleconsultation service for the patients and, additionally, a list of doctors was also submitted to the authorities in J&K.
Ehsaas International, which currently possesses 60 oxygen concentrators and other medical equipment for COVID-19 patients, has ordered 150 additional oxygen concentrators. “We are also setting up three wellness centres (50 beds in each centre) in Srinagar for COVID-19 patients in collaboration with Srinagar Municipal Corporation. They will be well-equipped with oxygen concentrators, cylinders and will have internet facilities, LCD projectors besides indoor game facilities for the entertainment of patients. Patients at the wellness centre will be treated by volunteer doctors of the NGO,” Hakim informed.
Another charitable organisation, Athrout Kashmir, has also collaborated with the Srinagar administration and converted the Haj house building into a COVID-19 hospital with 100 beds.
Similarly, Social Reforms Organisation (SRO) Kashmir has been helping people since the pandemic broke out last year. SRO Kashmir has over 250 oxygen cylinders, 223 oxygen concentrators, 250 non-invasive machines, four ambulances and other equipment available for COVID-19 patients.
Another NGO, Help Poor Trust, has 11 ambulances including one critical care ambulance to ferry patients to hospitals. It has 150 oxygen cylinders, 100 oxygen concentrators available for patients. The NGO also provides medicines and financial support to the needy.
The number of COVID cases has increased drastically over the last few weeks. Each day, on average, J&K reports over 4,500 COVID-positive cases.