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Nidhi Taparia Rathi
Physicians are used to getting phone calls in the middle of the night. And rare is the dinner that isn't interrupted by a cell phone. For Mumbai-based Dr Rajesh Shah, however, the emergency summons is just as likely to be through email… from anywhere in the world.
Like it came from James Ravenda of Toronto who, after futile visits to doctors in Canada and the US, is claimed to have been cured of his allergies by Shah's treatment in two months.
An equally dramatic claim is the recovery of German Alberto Frank from rare skin disease lichen planus, just one year after opting for Shah's homeopathic prescriptions.
Shah belongs to the new generation of Internet doctors. Today he and wife Rupal, who's also a homeopath, provide medical consultation and treatment to people from over 100 countries. All via email and videoconferencing from their 20 Web sites. But Shah has loftier goals: to reach even larger numbers of people, particularly those in need, and also form partnerships that would link specialists together and increase the reach of homeopathy.
This grand scheme faced many real-world obstacles. Two years ago, Shah remembers how a woman wanted to be treated by him, but only on condition that his entire prescription and solutions to her problems be in Spanish. Shah therefore translated his entire questionnaire and prescription. Today, consultations and prescriptions are given in four languages: English, Spanish, French and Japanese. Arabic and Chinese services are to be launched soon.
The Shahs receive more than a few hundred emails a day and claim to have answered health queries from 50,000 people in the past five years. "People from remote corners of the world, who have poor medical facilities but can access the Internet, have taken advantage." Predictably because of high Internet penetration, the largest number of queries comes from the US.
Shah has also created an e-medicine module for homoeopathy: "I've gathered addresses of homoeopaths across the world. Whenever a person consults me online, I mail him the address of the homoeopath nearest to him, be it in Germany, New Zealand or the US. The network thus helps patient, while promoting homoeopathy."
As for the future, "There's no arguing the fact that e-medicine is still in a fledgling state in India. Although the progress to a full-blown e-medicine setup is slow, there is no turning back."
In the following interview, Dr Shah talks about the impact of the Internet on homeopathy in general and his practice in particular.
How did you first discover the Internet?
In 1994, an American site listed my name as a contact person for those looking for information about homeopathy. As a result, many people contacted me for my opinion on their ailments. Since I was involved in promoting homeopathy globally, I thought: Why not to use the Internet to reach out to the world? That's how the first homeopathy site (and probably the first medical site) from India was born in 1995.
The first few queries I received were about the fundamentals of homeopathy. Today, they concern the treatment of migraines, herpes, diabetes, arthritis and a lot more.
How has the Internet helped you as a homeopath?
As a professional homeopath, the Internet has helped me in all four areas of my work: promotion, practice, education and research.
The sites that I've created to discuss the role of homeopathy allow me to talk to the masses in a real sense. Patients the world over are now opting for homeopathic treatment under my care, either online or by visiting our clinics.
Educationally, it's helped me communicate with students of homeopathy, and discuss medical and professional issues with other homeopaths. We're also in the process of launching an online journal for doctors. In the area of research, the Net has helped me access medical information on many subjects, discuss scientific matters with the medical fraternity and in the undertaking of global research ventures, like the hepatitis C treatment project.
All in all, I can say the Net has helped me bring about changes in the lives of others as well as my own.
What is the consultation procedure?
There are two categories of patients. To begin with, there are those who ask questions about whether a problem can be solved by homeopathy. I spend a great deal of time answering specific queries raised by patients who want to know what homoeopathy can do for them. This facility is completely free.
The other patients are those who actually want to subscribe to our online treatment. Their procedure of consultation is simple. They fill in a detailed online questionnaire about their ailments and habits. We use this information to analyse the problem, and then courier the medicines. Those who request names of local homoeopaths in their city or country may be given names of local organisations from our global database. We have different payment scales for different countries depending on the economic condition and pay scales there. Usually, an average treatment for a single course would work out to around Rs 10 per patient. This is a boon to patients in developed countries where medical costs are astronomical.
What makes your sites different from other medical portals?
I have over 20 sites that discuss various diseases. For a difficult skin disease called lichen planus, I have put up a site called lichenplanus.com. For allergic skin rash (hives), there's an exclusive site called utricaria.com. Likewise, we have hairfalling.com, asthmaticbronchitis.com, leucoderma.com, trigeminalneuralgia.us, etc.
There are also several novel utilities on my sites, like a hepatitis C risk assessment test and a Flash presentation on the homeopathic approach, which people have found useful. I'm constantly working on letting people know how they can benefit from homeopathy.
Do you remember any examples when you were actually challenged by a medical problem somebody had posted online?
Frankly, I do come across queries that compel me to do some research and study before I'm able to answer. Since people would obviously ask me questions about their difficult disease situations and complicated cases, it often calls for further study. I'm happy about it as it helps me grow as a medical professional.
How do you separate fake queries from genuine ones?
There may be some people sending in questions just for fun. This, however, is not very common. How many would have the time to send fake questions? When I do receive an apparently fake question I like to answer sincerely, encouraging the questioner to take homeopathy seriously.
I believe this is the time that people, especially from the western world, are using the Internet for a serious purpose. I do receive some irrelevant queries. But they simply add some humour to my tiring schedule!
Do you believe the Internet allows quacks to flourish?
Like any other medium, the Net also has its share of quacks. However, there are certain authentication criteria that help surfers make out the difference. For instance, HON has certified that all the information available on my site is authentic. I also feel that surfers are getting smarter and rarely fall prey to quacks.
How do you deal with the legal implications of prescribing on the Net?
Our patients sign a disclaimer before we begin treatment. Besides, we do not treat acute diseases that need supervision, like cardiac diseases. We treat silent diseases where long distance prescription works. We also have a few dos and don'ts, and would like patients to consume the medicine in consultation with a local practitioner. This is not always followed, but we do try our best.
Would you say the Internet has encouraged cyberchondriacs?
Interesting phrase! Yes, there are hypochondriacs who use the information available to get worried. Very often, I've been sent huge files by patients who've done all their research online. In fact I've recently booked a site for such patients because homeopathy has medicines for them too!
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