Life of the doctors at Tamil Nadu’s 24x7 control room | Exclusive
“Please do not address this as a call centre,” requests a health officer working in Tamil Nadu’s 24x7 control room. A team of 38 doctors attend an average of 900 calls per day.
Tamil Nadu stands third behind Maharashtra and Delhi as the state/UT with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, there are 1043 reported cases in the state (data as of 8 a.m. on 13th April).
Like most states, Tamil Nadu began gearing up to battle COVID-19 after India reported its first case on January 30, 2020. On February 20, the state set up its 24x7 control room in the state’s Directorate of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, headquartered at Chennai.
This 24x7 control room includes a helpline division where doctors attend phone calls from the public on any queries related to the coronavirus. “People often address this as a call-centre, but it isn’t. We are doctors here and give advice to the public with an evidence-based approach,” says Dr Subhash Gandhi, the health officer at the control room.
A closer look into the control room
There are a total of eight helpline numbers split into 25 connections. A team of 38 doctors attend calls in three shifts, namely the morning shift (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), noon shift (3 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and night shift (9 p.m. to 9 a.m.). For the first two shifts, at least 10 doctors will be present. For the night shift, a team of six doctors will be present. As per requirement, there are doctors-in-charge and health officers to assist the other doctors attending calls.
“Some calls are complicated in nature. The person may not be willing to hang-up despite receiving necessary information or may have doubts that are best answered by a superior. In those cases, we transfer the call to the health officer,” says Dr T. Sudhakar, one of the two doctors-in-charge of the control room.
The calls are divided under 12 categories that are as follows: about coronavirus, admission/treatment, doubts on how to get tested for COVID-19, self-reporting of travel or symptoms or coming in contact with positive cases, counselling, complaints or grievances, law and order queries, medicine or food-related queries, and calls from other states.
The doctors take down a caller’s name, age, location and purpose of call in a google sheet. After counselling, the provided solution is noted down and the form is submitted to the doctor-in-charge who sorts the calls into respective categories. In cases of emergency, such as comorbid patients who have come in contact with positive cases of COVID-19, or even pregnant women calling for delivery, ambulances are arranged from the control room itself.
While most doctors speak only Tamil or English, the control room is equipped with a few doctors here who speak in Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, or Kannada who are placed in shifts accordingly.
From February 20 till March 19, there were just four numbers listed. The control room received a total of 3,670 calls in total. From March 20, an additional four numbers were added, bringing the total number of helpline numbers available to eight. The number of calls has steadily increased since then.
What do people call about?
The increase in the number of calls is attributed not only to the addition of new numbers. It is also attributed to Tamil Nadu reporting its first case of COVID-19 on March 7 as well as factors like Janata curfew and the state announcing the implementation of section 144 in the state.
“During the earlier days, people called to enquire details on the virus, precautionary measures and other basic questions. But now the reasons for people calling have changed,” says Dr Shwetha, one of the doctors in the control room addressing the trend of changes in the category of calls.
On March 24, when section 144 was announced in the state, the control room had received its highest number of calls so far. The following six days, until 29th March, there was a minimum of 2,100 calls every day. “We started receiving calls related to law and order or availability of food. People’s panic began to increase during that time,” says Dr T. Sudhakar.
“A lady couldn’t stop crying. A doctor here was on a call with her for nearly 25 minutes. I then took the phone and it was difficult to pacify her,” recalls Dr Subhash. The woman was separated from her husband staying in another district. The couple couldn’t be together because all transportation in the state had come to a halt. “Since none of us have faced such a pandemic before, people panic easily. Sometimes, the words we use to comfort them is medication in itself! It goes a long way in keeping their mental health stable,” said Dr Subhash.
As of 6th April, at least 35 people who were attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat from Tamil Nadu had called the control room. An additional 15 members who were in close contact with those who attended had called to get tested. Doctors immediately have to spring into action.
Simultaneously, people call the control room in an attempt to pull pranks. “The most common one is requesting us to recharge their phones with a sarcastic tone. We can’t do anything. We just answer it with a smile because you can’t blame them. They’re locked down at home and bored. We understand it and guide them as much as we can,” says Dr Shwetha.
“I’ve received calls where people have said that they have found a cure or medicine for COVID-19,” says Dr Priyanka, one of the doctors in the control room. “We often guide them to the respective departments. Say if it was a Siddha medicine, I give them the appropriate department’s number and ask them to approach through that process.” Such calls are often hoax or untrue, believes Dr Shwetha.
“‘I can hear my neighbour coughing. I’ll give you his number, can you tell him to go to the hospital’ said a caller once,” says Dr Shwetha. “Since the neighbour had no travel history or had not come in contact with any confirmed case of COVID-19, it is highly unlikely that they have contracted the virus. So, we educate such persons but if people are still stubborn, we ask them to approach the nearest police station to file a complaint,” she added.
Between 20th February and 12th April, there have been a total of 47,794 calls to the control room. On average, the doctors here attend 901 calls per day. Since the beginning of the month, there have not been less than 1,500 calls attended per day. “In a span of four to five seconds, we can judge their reason - is it valid or not?” says Dr Subhash. “Nevertheless, we’ve to remain calm and answer accordingly,” added Dr Priyanka.