If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
~ Nelson Mandela
From being disfavoured due to a poverty of body language to being one of the most preferred modes of healthcare delivery – there has seen a sea change in the way people perceived teleconsultation before and during the pandemic. The benefits of digital services finally gained prominence when access to efficient and affordable care was made available to communities outside city limits amid a raging viral outbreak. Cut to present times, the old and young from urban locales to small towns are meeting doctors via their phone screens and even consulting in their native language.
A quick search on Google will tell you that Practo is possibly one of the very few healthtech firms in the world that facilitate teleconsultation with specialists in native tongue. This initiative speaks volumes about breaking language barriers in a country with over 22 official languages and countless dialects. Mind you, only a little over 10% of India’s population can communicate in English, and this has been a primary cause of hesitancy to access digital care services among people who live on the outskirts of urban locales, Tier 2, Tier 3 cities and rural areas. There is also a gender and age divide when it comes to getting medical attention, with women and senior citizens – who are often more vulnerable in terms of health problems – are usually on the receiving end.
Improved doctor-patient experience
The vernacular service promises simplified care, and therefore, a better doctor-patient experience. Raichur-based General Physician Dr Shoraf P – who is proficient in Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada – says, “To be able to really connect with a patient – a tenet that makes in-person visits still a preferred choice for many – is very important for a doctor. Being able to express oneself in his or her mother tongue instantly creates a sense of belongingness and trust, which in subsequent follow-ups, builds a bond between the physician and the patient, facilitating better understanding of the condition and its underlying causes.”
In the past months, Dr Shoraf has regularly consulted in Tamil and Malayalam, while he has also received a sizable number of inquiries in Kannada. “There has been a 40%-60% divide in terms of consultations in vernacular languages and English. Elderly patients often find it more comfortable if the doctor can speak their first language. Such initiatives can also go a long way in addressing the hesitancy to switch to digital tools,” he adds.
Preferred service among people across cultures
“Launched earlier this year with 15 languages – including Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Bengali – Practo’s vernacular language service has clocked 30% of the total number of teleconsultations on the platform in 2021. Even during the beta run, we found out that language-specific features on the app had garnered lakhs of user requests. This calls for bridging that language gap in healthcare delivery, given that 9 out of 10 new internet users in India are native language speakers,” says Sarang Sharma, Head of Product at Practo. Among the most popular languages on the app are Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi.
Blessing in disguise
“Once during the peak of the second wave, I developed severe throat pain and fever. I was alone at home, as my children were abroad and could not travel back due to the pandemic restrictions. To add to the misfortune, even our family doctor got infected and I had no one to consult with. Then, I thought of going for a virtual checkup, but was still undecided because I only speak Tamil and was not sure whether or not the online tool would facilitate that,” says Jayanthi M, a Chennai-based homemaker, adding, “I felt relieved to have been connected to a doctor who consults in Tamil. I could explain my condition properly and even got better after a few days of medication.”
Happy and comforting experience for patients
According to Kochi-based dietician Merlin Antony Vellappally, most patients feel happy and satisfied if the doctor can speak their language. “Taking care of your health is also a lot about how you feel when you visit a doctor – online or at a clinic. This adds value to care delivery and supports the patient emotionally. I have consulted both in Malayalam and Kannada, and there has been a marked difference in the feedback I have received after these sessions, compared with that of English,” she sums up.