At this point when everyone is encouraged to stay at home and be on home quarantine to contain the COVID-19 virus, free online consultations with doctors are a great help to make sure we keep our and our family’s health in check. The Lung Center COVID-19 Ask Force was formed to do just that.
The initiative started when Dr. Gina Delos Reyes, a pulmonologist from the Lung Center of the Philippines (LCP) and a faculty member of the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health (ASMPH), messaged Dr. Charmaine Cabaña and Dr. Elysse Salindo, both graduates of ASMPH, if they could take part in online consultations about COVID-19. Drs. Cabaña and Salindo, who would then become co-Project Heads of the Lung Center COVID Ask Force, disseminated the invitation to their batchmates and friends in ASMPH—and the invite was positively received.
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ANCX got in touch with the group through Dr. Kim Villanueva who heads the recruitment drive and the MD volunteers with Dr. Bernie Camacho. The initial recruits numbered to around 20-30 volunteer doctors. The group agreed that a Facebook page would be the best platform for the effort since most Filipinos have Facebook accounts. Dr. Jerson Taguibao, head of non-MD volunteers, thought of the name COVID Ask Force, a witty reference to the phrase “task force” and to the page’s purpose—answering questions about COVID-19.
The group clarifies that not all COVID Ask Force volunteer doctors are employed or working in LCP. They used Lung Center in their name because they work together with LCP especially when moderate to severe PUI (persons under investigation) cases need to be referred. The Ask Force is composed of a diverse group of doctors from different fields (GPs, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Psychiatry, etc.), from different institutions in different parts of the Philippines. Once the doctors have completed their onboarding requirements, they get an invite to the group’s ManyChat platform and from there, the doctors conduct the online consultations using their own laptop or mobile devices.
Meeting the demand
By day 2 of the page’s launch, they were already flooded with hundreds of requests. It was clear the current volunteers could not meet the demand. So they decided to limit consultation hours first as they scale up and ask for more MD volunteers.
Dr. Taguibao eventually enlisted the assistance of medical students who help the doctor volunteers with clerical and creative tasks (such as managing the FB page) and in filing the Case Investigation Forms (CIFs) of identified mild PUIs to the City or Regional Epidemiology Surveillance Units (CESU/RESU). This way, the limited MD volunteers could focus on doing the actual consultations.
Other organizations have begun to reach out to the Ask Force, asking how they can help or collaborate. Dr. Teejay Santos was them appointed to handle external relations. As more doctors joined the COVID Ask Force and the demand for consultations increased, they tasked Dr. Japi Marquez to head the quality control.
Currently, there are around 700 volunteer doctors who have signed up for COVID Ask Force. More than 100 of them attend to consultations every morning (8AM to 11AM) and evening (7PM to 10PM) shifts. They assure that the group has a system in place so doctors, who still go on hospital duty outside of doing online consultation, won’t get burned out. “We are incredibly grateful for our Filipino doctors for their dedication, patience, and compassionate service,” the project organizers said.
COVID Ask Force has had over 3,000 online consultations since they started last March 19 (Thursday). In the first two days, they got only around 200 to 300 consults. Now, they get around 500 consults, the group shared.
Their patients, who are Filipinos of all ages and social standing, often present to them “health concerns largely akin to signs and symptoms of COVID-19, but most cases are only classifiable as PUI requiring home quarantine.” They added that regardless of the patients’ background, “our aim is to provide the highest possible quality of consult and reassurance, given our limited resources.”
Frequently asked questions
Most of the patients’ questions revolve around symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, colds, sore throat, headache and body aches, fatigue, shortness of breath, and others such as abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea), the means of disease transmission, the characteristics of the virus such as its infectivity and ability to stay viable on surfaces, and also about the treatment according to illness severity, effective ways of prevention, and signs to look out for before seeking a follow-up or hospital consultation.
The doctors follow the management algorithm published and updated by the Department of Health (see images below). For patients who are diagnosed as PUM (persons under monitoring) and PUI Mild, they are advised to go on strict quarantine at home or in a barangay isolation unit. Their student volunteers then assist their doctors by filling out their CIFs to be relayed to the respective city and regional epidemiology surveillance units (CESUs/RESUs) for continuity of care, proper documentation, and adequate monitoring.
Meanwhile, patients diagnosed as PUI Moderate to Severe, patients who are COVID-19-positive, or any other patient who appears to be in critical condition, are strongly advised a hospital consult for admission where subsequent testing and treatment as well as isolation from the community are ensured.