Phone replaces steth: COVID-19 queries flood doctors, helplines

These are some of the common questions which doctors are flooded with, covering the most serious-to-downright-silly spectrum of queries

coronavirus, COVID-19, helplines, doctors, Coronavirus outbreak, questions
Initially, the medical staff attended to all the queries but some are now being answered by the customer care desk tasked with responding to irrelevant questions. Representative image: iStock

A sneeze is all it takes these days to create panic among people, so much that from flu to coronavirus, every infection crosses our minds, followed by an anxious phone call to the doctors.

I have flu-like symptoms. Do I have coronavirus? Can we contract COVID-19 from Made in China products? My stomach feels upset. Is it a sign? These are some of the common questions which doctors are flooded with, covering the most serious-to-downright-silly spectrum of queries.

With physical checks out of the reckoning, except in emergencies and that too in hospitals, the telephone has replaced the stethoscope and doctors are busy attending to calls by panic-stricken patients trying to come to grips with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

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The usual queue at clinics and hospitals might have disappeared, but doctors are as busy as ever and helplines on television, hospitals and social media are buzzing.

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The questions are many and bewildering in range, doctors said.

The most commonly asked questions relate to symptoms and prevention — “Will summer kill the coronavirus?”, “Should outside food and non-veg food be avoided?”, “Does smoking affect chances of recovery?”, “Are face masks useful?”, “Are hand sanitisers better than soap?” and “Are elders in my family more susceptible?” — are then followed by queries filled with naivety that leave doctors struggling for answers — “Can one contract the infection through mail coming from China?”, “Will sipping hot water kill the virus?”, “Are Indians more immune to coronavirus than others?”, “Is the risk higher in homes with tiles?,” “Are those with beards and moustaches more prone to the disease?,” and “Does sunbathing kill the virus?”

Vishal Sehgal, director at Goa-based Portea Medical, said their WhatsApp chatbot service, launched on March 3, has received over 15 lakh queries from over 16 countries. Besides, they get over 100 COVID-19 related calls on their helpline everyday.

There is a lot of anxiety and doubts among people about COVID-19. They are mostly about what this virus is, how it works, and what safety measures need to be taken. There are also a lot of queries on what one can do if they develop the symptoms.

But sometimes the questions are simply absurd like, is it true that drinking beer can help with coronavirus, Sehgal told PTI.

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As the number of cases rise, so do the levels of foolishness, said some doctors. But, as the disease claims more lives everyday, patience is the key.

Globally, COVID-19 has infected more than 1.8 million people and claimed 114,000 lives. In India, the death toll rose to 308 on Monday while the number of cases climbed to 9,152, according to the Union Health Ministry.

Hemant Kalra, a pulmonologist with lybrate.com (an online platform that connects patients with medical professionals), said it is natural for people to start panicking when they consume such vast amounts of information from various sources.

While media reports and health advisories might be reliable, there are also random WhatsApp forwards to contend with.

“My advice to people is not to fall prey to fake WhatsApp forwards and rely only on information coming from genuine sources,” said Vivek Nangia, director and head of department, pulmonology, at Fortis Hospital.

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Kalra added, “It is important to attend to these queries with a balanced approach. Patients call us to understand whether they are at risk of contracting the disease and our strategy is to not create panic. We ensure that we handle the queries with a lot of compassion and patience, because everyone is scared for themselves and their families.”

Rajesh Kumar, a doctor of Internal medicine at Gurgaon’s Paras hospital, agreed.

“I try to hear them out without interrupting. One needs to be more receptive. And, then whatever I share with the patient about coronavirus, I ask him/her to share it with his/her friends and relatives,” he said.

Ghaziabad’s Columbia Asia hospital has been receiving about 10 calls an hour.

Gyan Bharti, a pulmonologist at the hospital, listed some of the frequently asked questions — Are antibiotics effective in preventing or treating COVID-19?, Are there any medicines or therapies that can prevent or cure?, Is there a vaccine drug or treatment?, Should I take hydroxychloroquine empirically?

The hospital has started filtering the calls. Initially, the medical staff attended to all the queries but some are now being answered by the customer care desk tasked with responding to irrelevant questions, Bharti said.

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Does drinking alcohol kill the virus? Should we live in a closed room with higher temperature? Is tea a cure for coronavirus? are some of the posers.

Questions on mental wellbeing in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown are also pouring in.

Living in isolation or being locked up with the same set of people 24×7 is also taking its toll on many, specifically parents who want to know how to keep their children engaged.

Many are anxious about what they should and should not tell their children regarding the current atmosphere, said Samir Parikh, director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

Interestingly, the same patients who would earlier complain about not getting enough time with family and poor work-life balance are now stressed about being house-bound with their family, or facing trouble dealing with their children 24*7, he added.

(With inputs from agencies)

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