How an ‘ad hoc’ hospitalist model evolved during India’s COVID surge


Problems with patient flow

The next issue was triaging patients in the hospital based on COVID-19 severity. When the second wave began, hospitals in India ran out of beds and experienced staff shortages like in many countries. But this situation “was unusual for the health system,” according to Dr. Odeti, who is also an editorial board member for the Hospitalist.

“We never had that issue. There were so many patients wanting to come to the hospital, and so there was this rush.” There was no process to triage patients to determine who needed to stay. “Everybody got put into the hospital,” he said.

Once it was determined who would take care of patients with COVID-19, access to supplies became the primary problem, Dr. Adhikari explained. Lack of oxygen, ventilators, and critical medicines like the antiviral drug remdesivir were and continue to be in short supply. “I had friends who [said] they could not admit patients because they were worried if their oxygen supply [went] low in the middle of the night. They will treat the patients who were already admitted versus taking new patients. That had caused problems for the administrators,” Dr. Adhikari added.

It is also a source of additional stress for the physicians. Where patients flow through a hospital medicine model in the United States, a system that might include case managers, social workers, pharmacists, physician advocates, and other professionals to keep a patient’s care on track, the physician is the go-to person in India for patient care. While physicians provide access to medications and remain available to a patient’s family, those duties become much harder when caring for a greater number of patients during the pandemic. “That has led to some unrealistic expectations among the patients,” Dr. Adhikari said.

Dr. Bhatt said “more than half” of a physician’s time in India is spent counseling patients on concerns about COVID-19. “Awareness about the disease is limited from the patient and patient’s family perspective, as [there is] too much apprehension toward the nature of [the] disease,” he added. “Theoretical discussions collected from social media” obstruct the physician from executing his or her duties.

Physicians in India have had to contend with physical violence from patients and individuals on the street, Dr. Adhikari added. Workplace violence was already a concern – for years, the Indian Medical Association has cited a statistic that 75% of doctors in India have experienced violence at work (Indian J Psychiatry. 2019 Apr;61[Suppl 4]:S782-5). But the threat of violence against physicians has sharply increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Disruptions to daily life through lockdowns “made people fearful, anxious, and sometimes they have found it difficult to access emergency treatment,” according to a letter published by Karthikeyan Iyengar and colleagues in the Postgraduate Medical Journal. In response to the restlessness, irritation, and despair resulting from hospitals closing their doors, “people have shown their frustration by verbally abusing and threatening to physically assault doctors and other health care workers,” the authors wrote.

A telemedicine boon in India

Back in the United States, hospitalists with family and friends in India were trying to figure out how to help. Some were working through the day, only to answer calls and WhatsApp messages from loved ones at night. “Everyone knows a physician or someone who’s your colleague, who owns a hospital or runs a hospital, or one of the family members is sick,” Dr. Adhikari said.

These U.S.-based hospitalists were burning the candle at both ends, helping with the pandemic in both countries. Physicians in India were posing questions to U.S. colleagues who they saw as having the most recent evidence for COVID-19 treatment. Out of the 180 physicians he trained with in India, Dr. Odeti said 110 of the physicians were in a large WhatsApp group chat that was constantly exchanging messages and serving as “kind of a friendly support group.”

In Dr. Odeti’s group chat, physicians helped one another find hospital beds for patients who reached out to them. “The first couple of weeks, there was no proper way for people to know where [patients] were based. There was no way to find if this hospital had a bed, so they reached out to any doctors they knew,” he said.

While he said it was emotionally draining, “at the same time, we felt a responsibility toward colleagues in India,” Dr. Odeti said, noting that as COVID-19 cases have decreased in India, the requests have been less frequent.

Because of concerns about traveling to India during the pandemic while on a J-1, H-1B, or other visa with the United States, directly helping friends and family in India seemed out of reach. But many hospitalists of Indian origin instead turned to telemedicine to help their colleagues. Telemedicine had already been steadily growing in India, but was accelerated by the pandemic. The current ratio of doctors to patients in India is 0.62 to 1,000 – lower than recommendations from the World Health Organization. That makes telemedicine a unique opportunity for one physician in India to reach many patients regardless of location.

Dr. Adhikari said he helped out his colleagues in India by performing consults for their patients. “They were just worried because they did not ‘know where to go, or what to get,” he said. “I was treating more patients in India than I was actually treating here.”

In March 2020, the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released telemedicine practice guidelines for the country, which relaxed regulations on privacy requirements and has been credited in part for giving telemedicine an additional boost during the pandemic. “That makes it easy for people to reach out but also has its own problems,” Dr. Adhikari said.

Monitoring of milder COVID-19 cases that don’t require hospitalization can be performed by a nurse who calls every few hours to check on a patient, make recommendations, and text treatment plans. “The telemedicine platforms are being adopted really fast,” Dr. Adhikari said. “The platforms were built in no time.”

According to NewZoo, a games market data analytics company, India has 345.9 million smartphone users as of 2019 – the second highest number of users in the world after China. Dr. Odeti said he believes telemedicine will be widely adopted.

“In India, they are very proactive in accepting these kinds of methods, so I’m sure they will,” he said. “Governments were trying to do it before the pandemic, because access to care is a problem in India. There are villages which are very, very remote.”

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