A doctor far away makes disease go away

Published April 19, 2021
WITH a specialist available over video link, a patient [right] is being assisted by a paramedic for tele-consultation using digital health gadgets at a telehealth centre in Karachi.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
WITH a specialist available over video link, a patient [right] is being assisted by a paramedic for tele-consultation using digital health gadgets at a telehealth centre in Karachi.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

ABDUL Aziz Khan and his four family members — wife and three children — tested positive for Covid-19 one after the other in May 2020. Matters remained in control in the initial days of their isolation at home but after the fourth day the situation began deteriorating rapidly.

Mr Khan, an aviation professional, recalls the horrific days when his 53-year-old-wife, who suffers from diabetes and hypertension, began feeling respiratory complications. It didn’t end there, as their 27-year-old banker son developed the same condition. “At that time all I needed was space in a hospital and care for my two family members,” he says, recalling those days.

“But I was so helpless. I was infected too. My daughter and other son were also suffering from Covid-19. And above all, not a single hospital was paying heed to my cries. There was no bed anywhere. I was pleading for a bed, looking for any place that could give some advice, treatment and technical support needed for Covid-19 patients.”

He says he spent a total of six hours desperately calling his friends, relatives and well-connected colleagues, but to no avail. The time was running out for his wife and son, who were in dire need of hospital care and medical advice.

“During that seemingly fruitless exercise I came to know about a telehealth service,” he remembers. “I didn’t take that very seriously at first, but with no choice left I finally contacted people from the Ehad Healthcare. They responded immediately and got me connected to some doctors. That 30-minute conversation relieved almost all the stress and within the next hour they had provided me everything that I needed at home.

“From doctors to oxygen supply equipment and from paramedics to required medicine, my 240-yard home was turned into a mini-hospital as we took care of my wife and son.”

In time Mr Khan and his family members survived the crisis. That “great and amazing experience” enjoyed by the five-member family was actually a glimpse into the country’s fast growing telemedicine and virtual health sector for which the coronavirus pandemic came as a blessing in disguise.

When the country came under threat from novel coronavirus, healthcare systems nearly collapsed in most urban centres, where patients were denied admission, crucial surgeries were put on hold and out of fear many private health facilities shut down their operations temporarily. That was the time when the telehealth system operators moved to capitalise on the emerging opportunities.

Telemedicine or telehealth uses information technology to help professionals diagnose and treat patients who are located at distant locations by transmitting live or stored data, both voice and video. During the past few years, systems have been further modified and many operators have added value to the traditional telehealth and digital services.

“It was in fact an ignored area in Pakistan,” says Dr Anam Daayem at Ehad Healthcare, which helped Mr Khan and his family survive the coronavirus scare. “We were years behind in this tech-based service. This pandemic made people realise its importance and effectiveness. It has grown over the past year.

“Things are being added to the telehealth systems and we are doing the same. We are even providing services at people’s doorstep if they need them. This happened during the first wave of the disease as well. We have experienced a growth of more than 800 per cent within a year,” he says.

Dr Daayem is not alone in witnessing this boom. The E-Doctor programme of Abdullah Butt’s Educast after becoming a success in Pakistan has managed to make footprints even in Yemen and Saudi Arabia where it is running telehealth centres with the support of local administrations.

“No doubt, telehealth services have grown phenomenally during the pandemic in Pakistan,” says Mr Butt. “But honestly speaking, we have immense potential which still remains unexploited. There is still considerable resistance against tech-based services in society, but we need to make people realise that this is the future. Similarly, the government’s supportive role is always important for proper and smooth growth of any sector.”

The government, which until a year ago seemed unconvinced about the effectiveness of telehealth systems, is now partnering with several private sector organisations to provide services in the same area.

In response to queries by Dawn, Sindh’s Health Minister Dr Azra Pechuho says: “ChildLife Foundation and the Sindh health department have collaborated to work across 18 telehealth units across the province. Telehealth and telemedicine are the future and the Sindh health department is looking to incorporate them into the Common Management Unit Programme and the 1,000 Days [maternal and child healthcare] programme. This will especially involve lady health workers and community midwives and target mother and child hygiene as well.

“We have also drafted up a Telehealth Bill that is with the legal department at the moment and will be vetted and implemented soon.”

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2021

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