In times of coronavirus crisis, the age of telemedicine dawns on Bangladesh

The coronavirus crisis has ushered Bangladesh’s healthcare system into the telemedicine era with people and doctors opting for phone-based services instead of hospital trips amid a lockdown and fears of infection.

Kazi Nafia Rahman, Staff
Published : 21 April 2020, 06:17 AM
Updated : 21 April 2020, 06:21 AM

Housebound patients are now searching online for doctors or trying to reach them over the phone with COVID-19 becoming the booster shot that telemedicine was waiting for in the country.

Visits to hospitals became few and far between after the first coronavirus case was recorded in Bangladesh on Mar 8. Many physicians stopped meeting patients in person due to a lack of protective gear and finally the transport system was shut down on Mar 26.

Different public and private organisations, including the Directorate General of Health Services, then launched telemedicine services.

More than 100 practitioners at the North South University’s Department of Public Health initiated the services on Mar 17.

“We are serving people 24 hours through our hotline number 10655 after receiving training from the IEDCR [Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control And Research],” Dr Mahbubur Rahman Rajib, a research assistant with the initiative, told

He said now they are connected to the IEDCR and providing all forms of support. They are also serving people through a mobile app named ‘Nonstop Helpline.

In the beginning, a practitioner used to receive up to 4,000 to 5,000 calls when the services were based on their personal mobile phones, Rajib said.

He emphasised publicity to take the services to the rural areas.

Many doctors personally started providing the services even via video calls. Several private hospitals are also offering telemedicine services out of cost through video-conferencing apps.

Shafayet Islam, who works at a private audit firm in Dhaka, said he was in deep trouble when his 6-year-old daughter caught cold and fever a few days ago while the doctor’s chamber was closed and hospitals were denying patients with COVID-19 symptoms or neglecting their treatment.     

“I tried several hotline numbers of state-run organisations but found them busy. Later I found the number of an organisation on Facebook and called them. My daughter is improving now following their instructions.”

‘Aklima’, a domestic help in the capital, said she took telemedicine services after failing to get any doctor at a hospital. “My employer later gave me a number and I contacted a doctor. Now I am feeling good.”

The number of calls to the DGHS’s hotline 16263 and Shasthya Batayan has increased sharply after the outbreak started.

More than 2,100 volunteer doctors are providing health services over the phone every day, Director General of Health Services Abul Kalam Azad said in a media briefing on Apr 4.    

Authorities at Dhaka’s Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital launch one-stop services designating a separate counter for treatment of flu patients with symptoms like cough and fever, which are similar to those of COVID-19, amid a global coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Asif Mahmud Ove

The patients are taking advice from the specialists in medicine, surgery, gynaecology, emergency, neonatology and cardiology over the phone, according to Brig Gen AKM Nasir Uddin, the director at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

“Our hotline numbers are open 24 hours,” he said, “Specialists are not available everywhere, but we are serving according to what the patients need.”

Nasir said the DMCH has been providing telemedicine services since 2014. “We are connected to 20 to 25 Upazilas who are taking our advice online. They know the roster of the doctors and contact us accordingly,” he said.

People with all sorts of health problems, not only COVID-19 symptoms, were taking telemedicine services, said Uttam Kumar Barua, director of Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital in Dhaka.

Click here to read the story in Bangla and get the phone numbers and website addresses of telemedicine service providers.