In India’s Villages, the E-Doctor Will See You Now

India doctor

Before talking to the e-doctor via webcam, patients have their vital signs checked by trained staff. With its local partner, the Pondicherry Multipurpose Social Service Society, CRS links villagers by videoconference to a doctor. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Thilakavathi, a 37-year-old mother, didn’t feel very well for a year. “Taking care of the house, I’d say, ‘Maybe I’ll go to the hospital tomorrow.’ Every day I said this.” But she stayed on her feet, caring for her family in a village on the coast of southern India. The nearest medical center was three miles away, and cost about 30 rupees—almost a dollar—to reach by autorickshaw. The distance, the cost, and the time she’d take away from her family were prohibitive; she kept hoping the problems would just disappear.

One day she learned that she didn’t need to go far for help. In a community center in her village, the local diocese had set up a computer and webcam. At a specified time each day, Thilakavathi could “see” a doctor—and he could see her.

Thilakavathi arrived at the center and had her vital signs—like blood pressure—checked by trained personnel who passed the data on to the doctor. Then, sitting in a chair and watching the doctor on the screen, she described her symptoms. The doctor diagnosed her with anemia and vitamin deficiency, and found out the reason. “Before talking to the doctor, I would only eat the leftovers. A woman usually thinks of her husband and children. But the doctor says a mother can take care of others if she herself is healthy. Now I focus more on what I eat.”

The e-doctor service, run by the diocese’s Pondicherry Multipurpose Social Service Society and partially funded by Catholic Relief Services, has changed health care for poor villagers in southern India. Several villages participate; the doctor himself sits in Pondicherry city, miles away. In the villages, trained personnel dispense free medicines that the e-doctor prescribes, so patients don’t need to travel for those.

It’s a first line of defense against illness: a free, convenient way to discuss symptoms with a qualified doctor. Whenever those symptoms reflect something serious, the e-doctor immediately refers the patient to in-person medical care.

The service is new and different, but so easy that villagers can quickly grasp how it works. “I had never used a computer before. I was so excited,” says Janaki, another woman in Thilakavathi’s village. “The e-doctor takes time and listens,” she adds.

India mom

A mother brings her son to consult an “e-doctor” via webcam. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Mothers often describe their own symptoms or their children’s. In many cases, the e-doctor has prescribed de-worming syrup for children. For kids with scalp diseases, mothers show the doctor the bald patches on the webcam. They can also move the webcam to show other parts of the body, like a child’s arm. Kids aren’t afraid to see this doctor: “They like the headphones and they know they won’t get a shot,” laughs Janaki.

The e-doctor service is a boon for older people, too, says Rukiya Mary, who coordinates the e-doctor program in one village.

The Pondicherry diocese provides a similar e-lawyer service, which helps villagers settle legal issues like name changes. If a name isn’t recorded or spelled properly on documents—a typical scenario—poor people may miss out on government benefits. A beneficiary named Sabita says, “When we tried to enroll our son in school, we were told, ‘You need to fix his father’s name in his birth certificate.’” The e-lawyer helped Sabita, and now her son has a birth certificate that his school—and future schools—will accept.

With the e-doctor, villagers can feel more secure about getting help for common ailments, and don’t have to spend precious time or money traveling to clinics unless their situation calls for it.

“We’re so happy about this service—we tell people, we publicize it,” says Janaki’s neighbor, 26-year-old Varalakshmi. She adds with a big smile: “We used to go in search of medical help. Now it comes to us.”

Reported by Laura Sheahen, CRS regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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