Doc Call 247: A labour of love that has indeed borne fruit

Dr B.J.C.Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

On the 20th of August 2021, The Island most kindly published an article of mine, where I stated that the Doc Call 247 initiative of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and SLT Mobitel, joined later by Dialog, Hutch and Airtel mobile communication providers, is a veritable labour of love. It was initiated as a hotline answered by Western qualified allopathic doctors to provide state-of-the-art information and advice on COVID-19, in all three languages, to the needy, in trying to fill a telling vacuum where the general public needed empathy, information and advice. The SLMA was ever so quick to recognise this dire need and act promptly in a gesture of goodwill to society in general.

In a landmark effort hitherto unseen, coordinated by Mobitel, the other three mobile communication providers selflessly put their collective shoulder to the wheel. Generally speaking, the mobile providers are continuously competing and vying with each other to get the greatest number of subscribers into each network. Here they sunk all their differences, perhaps for the very first time in this little island nation, and produced a magnificently coordinated venture of collaboration, completely free-of-charge to the entire country. It was a dazzling example of their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility. All the callers needed to do was to dial 247 from any mobile service provider connection or dial 1247 from a Sri Lanka Telecom Land Line, all completely toll-free, to be connected to a qualified doctor for a maximum call duration of ten minutes. In an automated system that can process around 100 calls at any given time, the maximum waiting time or ‘lag time’ has been around 90 to 100 seconds. There were hardly any instances of the system being ‘engaged’ and uncontactable at any given time. The final common pathway was a dedicated network of Mobitel.

The people who answered the calls were all Registered Doctors practising Western Medicine, who selflessly gave of their time and effort, in a purely voluntary and sparkling gesture of commitment. It was without any remuneration whatsoever; just a gesture of compassion to help the people of our land. There were Specialist Consultants, experienced Grade Medical Officers and even most recently qualified men and women of medicine awaiting their internship; the young and the old and anyone who could spare even just a little time from their precious lives to help in this endeavour. The gesture of love has indeed borne fruit now and is just the personification of the immortal words of the poetry of volume II of John Bunyan, “You have not lived today, until you have done something for someone, who can never repay you”.

Up to the time of writing of this piece on 14th September 2021, just about 30 days after the entire venture started, the network has handled around 44,000 telephone calls. At present, there are about 150 Consultants, around 500 Grade Medical Officers and around 100 Pre-Interns who have joined as volunteers into the system. In addition around 80 Sri Lankan doctors resident abroad too joined in. The expatriate doctors resident abroad have taken turns on a roster to cover the Sri Lankan nights due to the time differences in other parts of the world where they are residents. All these doctors of all types listed above have responded to emergencies, provided well-thought-out advice and even gone to the extent of discussing the problems with the seniors and the health authorities, and got back to the callers. Through the entire network, which is now linked to the Ministry of Health COVID-19 Resource Centre and the Suwaseriya Ambulance Service, they have responded magnificently to this hour of need of the men, women and children of our country. The numbers given above are just the number of calls. In most instances, entire families with several COVID-19 positive people had been the recipients of the services provided by the system. The doctors for their part, have taken great pleasure in giving back something to the people of this country who have funded and sponsored their professional advancement in healthcare. Some of these medical women and men have handled thousands of calls while others have responded to just hundreds of them. However, big or small, their contributions have made the entire venture a very successful one.

Answering around 44,000 calls from needy patients is a Herculean task. That is a kind of a superhuman response with a waiting time or lag time of under 2 minutes. What do all these numbers tell us? They very clearly show us that there is a crying need among patients and families afflicted and affected by COVID-19 for accurate information. It also portrays the anxiety and concerns amongst these people of our land. Each call represents a household where there may be many who are infected, but not tested often and not even represented in national data. It has been assessed that the average number of likely patients per call is around 4. In such a context, the system has tried to help around 150,000 men women and children of our country in just about 30 days. Our experience suggests that the vast majority of patients can be successfully managed at home, with a few simple instructions and guidance. However, to save lives, it is of paramount importance to detect the small number of people who need immediate care and refer them to hospitals for as early management as humanly possible. The system and the operators have striven so hard to do just that.

In this ground-breaking and history-making venture, without any exceptions worthy of note, the callers have been extremely grateful to the doctors who have always remained anonymous through the facilities built into the system. At the end of the conversations, many callers have deemed it fit to shower unrestricted praise on the responding doctors, the SLMA and the mobile service providers. They have invoked the blessings of the Triple Gem, Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Allah, Lord Shiva and many other deities on the doctor who responded to their call for help. Such gestures of gratitude have left some of the doctors visibly moved, even speechless and given them the kind of personal satisfaction that, in their own words, was just priceless. Indeed, many of them have had misty eyes due to the obvious appreciation expressed so frequently by the callers. As for me, from a personal perspective, it has been such a humbling and gratifying experience in my entire professional life to have done even a little towards the welfare of our Sri Lankan people.

Yet for all that, we cannot say that we have sufficient numbers of volunteer doctors to cater to the tremendous demand. We do appreciate the fact that doctors are very busy people with the current pandemic, trying hard to get on with their own lives while having to balance many things in their homes as well. It is to their eternal credit that with all their commitments, they are able to give even an hour or two a day to this endeavour. There are no fixed duty hours or rotas for the doctors. They can ‘opt in’ and ‘opt out’ of the system at the press of a couple of buttons on their mobile telephones. If you do not wish to be disturbed at night and ‘opt out’, the system will not bother you. The entire endeavour has been designed to be ever so flexible simply because of these considerations. There are close to 25,000 registered doctors who practise Western medicine in Sri Lanka. If just one-fifth of them, just 4000 to 5000 or so, agree to give an hour of their precious time every day, or even every other day, we will be able to run the system that has the potential to handle around 100 calls at any given time; ever so efficiently, and smoothly, to the very benefit of our people.

SO…, THIS IS A FERVENT CLARION CALL AND A VERY SINCERE APPEAL TO ALL DOCTORS IN SRI LANKA, TO LEND A HAND TO THIS HUMANITARIAN INITIATIVE. All they need is a Mobitel connection and if they do not have one already, Mobitel will provide them one with a SIM Card, free of charge. A Mobitel connection is needed to get into the system as the final common pathway is through a Mobitel network.

Finally…, take a bow…, Mobitel, Dialog, Hutch and Airtel, the system operators and the Special Working Group of the SLMA, the President, Secretary and the Council of the SLMA, and all the volunteer doctors who are the backbone of this initiative, for a splendid job so very well done. I am quite sure that if that legend of yore, Muhammad Ali, the champion heavyweight boxer who immortalised his own words, “I am the greatest” was alive today, he would be quite happy to unhesitatingly paraphrase his words to say “YOU ARE THE GREATEST”.

Thank you

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