New Delhi: The coronavirus pandemic across the world has made thousands of Indians turn to telemedicine and online consultations to seek clarifications about their concerns.
Online healthcare platforms like PharmEasy, Practo, Ask Apollo, 1mg, DocPrime and Visit Health are registering a high number of virtual visits — through calls and chatting — from people who want to check for symptoms and possible cures, and also avoid exposure to COVID-19 through offline hospitals and clinics.
Speaking to ThePrint, Dharmil Sheth, founder of online pharmacy shop PharmEasy, recounted the story of a man who had recently contacted the virtual medical line set up by the platform to ask about the veracity of a message he had received on WhatsApp about a possible cure for the coronavirus.
“He wanted to know everything about coronavirus, and possible preventions to debunk the misinformation received in the WhatsApp forward,” he said.
Thousands of consultations
The man was among the 200-300 calls Sheth’s platform has been receiving every day for the last 10 days on its free helpline number, compared to the average of 100 per day earlier.
“The majority of these are panic calls, where users want to understand if their symptoms look like coronavirus. But our doctors guide them with correct information about seasonal flu as well,” Sheth said.
Another e-pharmacy store, 1mg, has completed over 10,000 free consultations, specifically for the keywords ‘fever’ and ‘flu’, in the last 10 days.
“Between 1 and 11 March, we saw fever or flu-related e-consultations increase by 300 per cent. The number continues to grow. These consultations came from over 600 cities and towns across India,” said Prashant Tandon, CEO at 1mg.
Digital healthcare platform Practo said it has registered a 30 per cent spike in queries regarding fever, cough, cold, sore throat and body ache in the last two weeks. To cash in on the opportunity, the platform has launched a monthly plan that provides unlimited monthly consultations with doctors from over 20 specialties at Rs 399.
“Telemedicine has been a saviour to a lot of people in consulting doctors without overcrowding the clinics or hospitals. Ten times more people are using telemedicine in China because of the coronavirus,” said Alexander Kuruvilla, chief healthcare strategy officer, Practo.
The users and the info they want
According to Practo’s internal study, a majority of such queries come from people in the age group of 20 to 30 years. Most of the queries related to fever, cough and cold are received between 9 am and 12 am, and between 7 pm and 9 pm.
“It is tier 1 cities from where most of the queries come such as Bangalore, Delhi NCR, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai,” the study said. Among tier 2 cities, the most questions come from Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Bhubaneshwar and Indore.
The top questions asked across these platforms are — what are the symptoms of COVID-19, how the disease spreads, what should be done if somebody experiences these symptoms, and how the disease can be prevented.
“There is a clear trend towards e-consultations, and people do not want to go to crowded healthcare facilities like hospitals, clinics, labs, pharmacies etc., perhaps due to fear of infections there,” Tandon from 1mg said.
“Also, a lot of people are anxious — those who would typically not seek a doctor for a mild fever now want to be absolutely sure that they get professional advice at the earliest.”
Telemedicine around the globe
According to a report by TIME magazine, telemedicine was used by only 10 per cent of Americans so far, but the coronavirus pandemic could change that.
“If extreme measures like mass quarantines come to pass, telehealth could finally have its bittersweet moment in the spotlight, potentially generating momentum that proponents hope will continue once life returns to normal,” the report stated.
In the United States, hospitals are putting in place new systems of telemedicine consultations to handle COVID-19, which “threatens to tax limited resources and staff”, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Another report in The Economist stated that millions of Chinese citizens, who are cooped up and anxious, have turned to online doctors. “Even after the COVID-19 epidemic, many will continue to favour internet hospitals,” it said.