Next time you wish to see a doctor in Srinagar just dial EAO’s free helpline and it will be done. Started with an aim to bridge gap between doctors and patients Bilal A Wani’s venture is spreading smiles too. Saima Bhat reports
Ebullient Altruists Oasis, EAO, health care, Kashmir’s first health helpline service was started in June 2014 with an aim to connect patients with doctors. This free helpline was created for people, mostly from rural areas so that they can fix their appointments with doctors in Srinagar over phone, which otherwise was not possible.
Just dialling on a toll free number, 1800121718, information regarding specialist doctors, their consultation timings, venue and even their appointments can be fixed from any part of Kashmir without actually going to the clinics.
Bilal Ahmad Wani, 36, a software engineer, conceived the idea of creating a health helpline when he was pursuing his graduation (first year), from SSM college of engineering in 2000. With around 100 doctors associated with his helpline Wani says the actual idea was that patients from far flung areas should not waste their time and money for ‘unnecessary’ trips, prior to appointments to these clinics. Instead he wished if he could get their appointments fixed which in turn can save their day and money for coming down to Srinagar after travelling more than 40 and 50 kms.
“That time I was just a student and I couldn’t afford the idea. Then I left for Bangalore in 2004 for further studies (from Manipal University) and in 2006, from Bangalore I called some of my friends to help me out with this plan,” says Wani.
By that time Wani had managed to raise some funds in Bangalore but he was not personally available in Kashmir. So some of his friends, who too were from IT background, volunteered and they managed to create a data base. But they couldn’t fix any appointment.
“The plan couldn’t prosper and we had to stop it as we didn’t had any proper mechanism through which patients could connect with us like a toll free number,” says Wani. “For Kashmir, it was closed down but for me it was never closed.”
Meanwhile in Bangalore, Wani after completing his studies started working as a software engineer with different companies but finally landed in Sasken Communications Public Limited, Bangalore. In October 2013, this company had an innovation program in which Wani presented his idea of health helpline which was approved as the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project of the company for one year. But Wani was asked to start this helpline in Karnataka. “I refused and instead pressed for Kashmir,” recalls Wani.
Finally in March 2014, Wani landed in Kashmir and started his idea afresh with new enthusiasm. He says his first job was to meet doctors again. “We had done some ground work but there was a big gap. I started again without a team. But as I started my volunteers returned and we became a team of five members and we started from our office in Natipora.”
Wani and his team started with awareness programs in Kupwara and Handwara, distributed pamphlets in busses and roped in some Imams of Masjids. But that program didn’t click. Then they switched to local newspapers, local cable networks, and roped in Chief Medical Officers of different districts. “We were not having luxury budget. We were working on a small budget,” says Wani.
The helpline service was finally started in July 2014 and received a number of calls, which was a good start but September 2014 floods changed everything. “It inundated our office which was located in the ground floor at Natipora. Besides that homes of our volunteers were also inundated. We were back to point zero,” says Wani but that deluge didn’t stop him to gain the strength.
In October 2014, the helpline was started again and the survey was done for the third time to check if the patients, doctors and the data were safe. And he was alone again.
Presently Wani says his helpline sets approximately five appointments a week. “But our goal is to fix at least one appointment per day. For that we need to go for awareness programs but we don’t have that much budget. That is why we are channelizing social groups of rural areas,” says Wani.
Even if this helpline was started for a particular audience but today, around 40 percent of calls are from Srinagar city only. With less than a year since its inception, the helpline has already received 272 calls and fixed 31 appointments so far.
Wani feels that people prefer them over traditional ways of getting appointments with doctors because their appointments are given on priority basis which otherwise take weeks.
The helpline was started as a bridge between a patient and doctor to fix an appointment but with time some cancer patients also knocked at their doors. EAO helpline keeps record of their all such patients and on basis of that data, Wani says depression and oncology related problems are growing fast in Kashmir.
By May 2015, Wani is joining back his company in Bangalore but here in Kashmir, he says EAO will continue to help Kashmiris and for the time being, a sister concern coaching classes were started with the same name to help the helpline financially.
For future Wani sees EAO as employment generation program with e-clinics or smart clinics in all districts of Kashmir.