There was a 302% increase in mental health-related queries between March 2020 and November 2020 compared to the same period last year on digital healthcare platform Practo, and the growth was most pronounced in non-metros, with one in three consultations requested by women, says ‘Rise of Telemedicine-2020’, a joint report released by the Telemedicine Society of India and Practo which analyses data from millions of Indians who used the healthcare platform to book appointments with general physicians, specialists and super-specialists over the specified period.
The findings are quite startling in showing a shift towards remote consultations, which became the norm during the pandemic, and in the evolving patterns of health concerns such as the rise of queries related to mental health issues and a whopping 500% spike in the adoption of online consultations by those above the age of 50.
The report notes that during this period, there was a threefold increase in the number of people using online consultations, while the number of in-person appointments fell by 32%. Interestingly, non-metros saw the highest growth in online consultations compared to the same period in the previous year: it grew by 7 times.
“During the same period last year, the split between metro:non-metro for online consultations stood at 75:25. This year, it is 60:40, demonstrating that the number of online consultations from non-metro cities is on the rise,” says the report, noting that several tier-2 cities like Manjeri, Arrah, Balasore, Etah, Orai, Khopoli, Jagtial, and Shivpuri used telemedicine for the first time in this period. Among metros, Chennai had the highest growth with 4 times the number of consultations compared to the same period last year while in Bengaluru, Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, and Kolkata, the number grew three times.
The report also breaks down the most popular specialities that users reached out to during the pandemic, and while 26% of the consultations were with general physicians, this was followed by dermatology at 20%. Interestingly, the top overall medical concern for users in the 31-40 years age group was hair-fall, followed by more common concerns like gastrointestinal issues and vaccination for children, showing that dermatologists are having a moment in the sun thanks to ‘pandemic hair-fall’ and ‘maskne’.
The report also notes a significant increase in the number of late-night consultations, with 25% of online consultations having taken place between 10 pm and 4 am. “While a number of things could have led to this, these changes in sleep patterns have been attributed to conditions like anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, one of the top specialties consulted during late-night hours also happens to be mental health,” it says.
The rise of telemedicine during this period could lead to a more permanent shift in the way we consult doctors, the report notes, and there are many factors behind this, including convenience, flexibility, lack of availability of good medical resources in non-metro cities and even more so in remote towns and villages, the risk of disease transmission at an OPD or emergency room, and the availability of doctors outside business hours.
“Although teleconsultation does not help during emergencies, it may come in handy as advice for first-aid and stabilization. It can also help in follow-up consultations; retrieving old data (which is often lost); reducing travel time and costs,” the report notes.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) prescribes a doctor-patient ratio of 1:1000, in India, this ratio is around 0.7:1000, indicating that telemedicine can help mitigate this gap.