Being a doctor in a pandemic: Hopes, fears & perspectives

The pandemic has emerged as an acid test for a doctor’s ability to deliver care despite being in the throes of burnout. Doctors associated with Practo, an online digital healthcare app through which you can consult with over 20000+ doctors online through chats and calls, are bracing up to fight off the pandemic that is still looming over the world amidst the fears of the third deadly wave. Reeling from the impact of multiple healthcare crises in a single year, many are donning several hats and masks to appropriately and effectively respond to the pandemic challenges.

One of them, Dr Umar Sheikh, looks out the window of his makeshift clinic at home in Srinagar. Once punctuated with the familiar sounds of children playing, it’s wearing a deserted look today. Before he could allow his mind to drift off, his cellphone started blaring again. “Hello…what’s the name of the patient and where is he admitted,” he starts, as he makes a note of another requirement of medical oxygen in one of only two hospitals in the area. “I’ll make a few calls and try to get this delivered to you,” he ends the call.

The second wave of COVID-19 in India has sparked a tragic chain of events, prompting doctors to go beyond their call of duty to help patients in need. This article provides some insight into the scale of the crisis, and healthcare workers like Dr Sheikh – who started practicing just three years ago – have been volunteering to augment delivery of essential equipment to hospitals amid shortages.

However, even as the pandemic exposed critical gaps in the healthcare system, it has also presented an opportunity to transform this system for the better. Dr Ankit Singh, who has been working as a General Physician for nearly a decade, discovered the true potential of telemedicine when he was himself diagnosed with COVID-19 and could not meet patients in person. Classed as an essential worker, he’s permitted to travel to his clinic in Lucknow despite localized lockdowns in the district, but Dr Singh has remained at home more often than anticipated.

“Since we work closely with patients on a daily basis, we’re at a high risk of falling ill. This means gearing up for long periods of quarantine at home,” he says. For him, online consultation was the bridge that connected him to his patients, albeit remotely. “I was also able to help many who had tested positive for COVID-19. Given that managing mild symptoms at home is vital to reducing the burden on hospitals, online consultations offered a succour for these times,” he adds. Teleconsultation has also increased accessibility to medical experts, helping separate authentic and spurious claims on the coronavirus circulated on social media. “In today’s day and age, free advice is not in short supply,” says Dr Singh, adding, “Lies packaged as facts also trigger panic among people. Here, knowledge can be the only panacea, empowering people to make sense of what’s happening around them and adopt necessary measures.”

Combating an intractable pandemic

It is often said that bad examples serve as good warning signs. Even as the progress towards normalcy remains elusive, healthcare professionals are already reflecting on their experiences to prepare for the next health crisis. “While scarcity of essentials is a real problem that needs to be addressed, we must also train our attention towards the critical shortage of healthcare workers in India,” says Dr Anand Kalaskar, who’s been working as a General Physician for over two decades.

As per the findings of the 15th Finance Commission in a report for 2021-26, there is 1 doctor for every 1,511 people in India (WHO recommendation is 1 for every 1,000) and 1 nurse for every 670 people (against WHO norm of 1:300). This is likely to be even more skewed as demand increases in the coming years. “One way to fill this gap is by focusing on training more nurses who can provide primary care without a doctor’s direct supervision,” feels Dr Kalaskar, elaborating, “Not only do these jobs require less schooling, nurses can help alleviate doctor shortages by offering care to patients who do not necessarily need a specialized physician’s attention. It is even more pertinent when we consider the present situation when nurses have powered an overstretched healthcare system by performing varied tasks, from administering vaccines to monitoring critically ill patients.”

According to Dr Kalaskar, this also serves as an invitation to broaden our perspective on jobs in healthcare, creating employment opportunities in the process. “Addressing this deficit would not only involve focusing on education and training, but also on increased efforts to retain and reward those workers,” he says. “Long hours and difficult work – often in rural, remote and under-served areas – must be appropriately repaid by leaders at all levels who must ensure that those who care for others are also cared for.” Echoing similar thoughts, Dr Sheikh says, “In contrast, it is disheartening to see verbal and physical violence directed at healthcare professionals in some hospitals. Our job is to provide care and we have vowed to do whatever we can with available resources to do that well by providing treatment, allaying their fears, guiding their thinking and helping them stay afloat.” Regardless of when we will emerge on the other side of the pandemic, the roles of healthcare professionals are increasingly changing and becoming diverse. In the path to rebuilding a better world, there are plenty of lessons we can learn from the pandemic that can be applied to how we deliver healthcare.

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