Just 12 days after giving birth, 32-year-old Shazia* from old city in Srinagar tested positive for COVID-19. Unsure of how to proceed, she dialled the toll free number for telemedicine service that she had seen on a Facebook post. Little did she know, that the call would save her life.
“What I assumed were mild symptoms were actually not. The doctor on the helpline immediately asked me to get some oxygen support. Within no time, my saturation levels dropped and I was put on an oxygen cylinder. Thankfully, the timely advice saved me from greater harm,” Shazia said.
Like Shazia, there are countless examples of distressed people who have benefitted from the telemedicine service called ‘Dial a Doctor’ started by Kashmir Healthcare Support Group in collaboration with Ehsaas International, a Valley-based NGO. Among those replying to the calls are around 250 doctors from different specialties and sub-specialties who are part of the Kashmiri diaspora working abroad.
“You can call it a virtual super specialty hospital. Initially, a few doctors had tied up with us. With time, Kashmiri doctors based in countries like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East also joined this initiative. Now, we have around 250 doctors under this healthcare group and they are all specialists in different fields,” general secretary and the founder of Ehsaas International, Hakim Mohammad Ilyas, said.
Ilyas added that since the doctors are different time zones, it makes it possible to run the service 24/7. “We receive hundreds of calls daily on our toll free number 18008892729 from people then we connect them with available doctors for advice.”
Over the past few weeks, Kashmir has witnessed a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases that has overwhelmed resources and left patients in a lurch. It is here that the initiative – which began as an outreach service for those in Kashmir but is now also being used by people in other states – is trying to fill the gap.
A senior consultant Cardiovascular anesthesiologist based in Gulf said the group offers medical advice, creates awareness among patients and even provides an e-prescription wherever needed.
“We are away from our homeland, but that doesn’t stop us from extending help to the people. We have been approached by patients who don’t have access to doctors and we have been advising them on the dos and donts’ of home-management. Also, there is a lot of confusion on vaccines and other things. We help them understand if they are getting the right treatment or not,” he said, asking to not be named.
The consultant said they keep all the records of the patient so that it is easier for another doctor to follow up on the patient. More so, the ground operations are conducted through Jammu Kashmir Healthcare Trust (JKHT) which runs a not-for-profit multi-specialty polyclinic in Srinagar.
“We have framed a proper mechanism. Urgent medical or surgical calls are managed by two first responder groups and then different groups like endocrinology and cardiology, where senior consultant doctors provide consultations to a patient as required. Most calls are related to COVID-19, kidney ailments, diabetes, blood pressure and psychiatric issues,” he said.
*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the person.
Hirra Azmat is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, who covers human interest stories with a special emphasis on health and environment.
All images have been provided by the author.