As coronavirus cases increase in Pakistan, doctors turn to helping patients over the phone

Dr Javed Khan, a leading chest physician in Karachi, is receiving 40 to 50 calls daily these days from people who seek medical advice for themselves or their loved ones, after testing positive for coronavirus or having its symptoms, as they don’t know whom to contact in case of being infected due to no public helpline in Sindh to guide them properly.

Another leading chest physician, Prof Dr Sohail Akhtar, is also receiving around 40 calls and messages daily, for the same reasons.

There are around 24,535 COVID-19 patients in Sindh, mostly in Karachi, who are in isolation at their homes as most of them are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, according to officials.

Officials say the number of coronavirus patients, who are at home with mild to moderate symptoms are on the rise as hospitals are packed to capacity and these people do not know where to go for medical treatment or even for medical advice.

“I am daily receiving at least 40 calls from people who know me. They ask about what they should do as they have been tested positive for COVID-19. Most of these people are asymptomatic or having mild symptoms, but now the number of patients who require oxygen at homes is on the rise as hospitals are packed to capacity,” said Dr Khan, who called for immediately launching a helpline or universal access number (UAN) to guide people in distress.

He said many organisations and associations were offering online clinics and telehealth services but the majority of people needed a UAN or helpline where trained and qualified physicians were available to help people in distress.

Dr Khan said that in the days to come, COVID-19 patients in home isolation would rise as there was already no space available at public and private health facilities.

“I would urge the government to hire trained and qualified physicians, while experts can also be asked to volunteer, to assist people who need medical advice on the phone. For the government, it is not difficult to hire a few hundred people, who could inform them about what should they do if they test positive for COVID-19. These doctors can even guide people on giving oxygen, monitoring oxygen saturation and giving the required medication to patients,” Dr Khan added.

Another chest specialist, Prof Akhtar, was of the same view. He said that with the increase in the number of COVID-19 patients, most of whom would be in self-isolation, there was an urgent need to have an authentic helpline and UAN so the people could seek medical advice and guidance.

“Although this should have been done earlier by the authorities, it can still be done. People are calling doctors whom they know personally but if they have a helpline where trained and qualified doctors were available, it would be a great relief for thousands of patients who don’t know any physician personally,” Prof Akhtar said.

Helpline 1166

Some of the patients who tried to seek medical advice by calling on the government’s Sehat Muhafiz helpline launched in February this year alleged that no guidance was provided to them by the operators and the call was dropped when they asked the caller to wait for transferring the line to the relevant doctor.

“I have called on 1166 on many occasions and it is of no use. The line is dropped when they say they are transferring the call to a doctor,” said Iqbal Ahmed, a COVID-19 patient, from Karachi.

British doctors

A team of British doctors of Pakistani origin is helping COVID-19 patients on phone in coping with the disease, according to local patients. They said whenever they registered with the British doctors’ helpline, they got a call from them and their advice and suggestions were quite helpful.

“Yesterday a friend sent me a poster about UK-based Pakistani doctors who could help COVID-19 patients in Pakistan on phone. I registered myself with them immediately and today I got a call from one of the British doctors. The doctor was quite helpful, gave me at least 15 minutes on phone, advised me about medicines, diet, symptoms and what should I do if my health deteriorates,” said Ismail Dilawar, a local journalist based in Karachi.

Responding to a query, he said he had previously called on Sehat Muhafiz 1166 helpline but he was not satisfied with the response while he was no sure whether they had any experts to deal with queries regarding COVID-19 on not.

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