Instead of reporting such incidents to the police and ensuring that action is taken against the sexual harassers, websites have tried to keep it under wraps while putting in some measures to check such incidents, with little success.
Regulations notified in May this year stipulate that in telemedicine consultation “both patient and the registered medical practitioner (RMP) need to know each other’s identity”. This is not followed by most websites. In fact, most boast that within seconds or minutes of registering and paying, you can be put through to a doctor for consultation.
Patients register with several different ID numbers and use those to harass women doctors. Male patients register as female and the doctors often realise this only after they start attending to a call. If the ‘patient’ gets blocked after harassing one doctor, he moves on to target other doctors on the site as the sites have done little or nothing to identify such callers and block them or lodge formal complaints of sexual harassment. With a monthly plan of just a few hundred rupees depending on the app and the kind of service you have chosen, most websites offer unlimited free consultations or a limited number of free consultations per day.
“It’s very traumatising, especially the first time when it happened. Most of these calls happen at night and so now we have requested the company to have mostly male doctors on call at night. They have also stopped allowing unlimited consultation calls for a monthly subscription. That has brought down the number of such calls we face,” said a doctor.
Whether Practo, one of the early entrants in the teleconsultation field, or a later entrant like Dhani, a teleconsultation company started by India Bulls, doctors working for these companies have been facing sexual harassment from patients on a regular basis. Though doctors are assured that identification documents have been made mandatory for patients seeking to use teleconsultation services, there seems to be no scrutiny of what is being uploaded and none of the websites reflect norms for consultation being made stricter.
There have even been instances of groups of men calling up a woman doctor and talking inappropriately or making vulgar gestures. In some cases, the harassers have gone on to stalk them on social media like Facebook and Instagram, sending friendship requests and asking for personal numbers, forcing them to change the privacy setting of their accounts.
“This cannot be normalised as part of our job. We are more careful now and can sense when a person is not a genuine patient and cut the call immediately, block the person and inform the company. But we should not have to put up with this. For a call that does not translate into a prescription, we don’t even get paid any commission,” said a doctor working for Dhani. Dhani pays doctors monthly salaries of Rs 40,000-45,000 plus commissions for every consultation that generates a prescription. In Practo, doctors are paid Rs 64 for every consultation.
A Dhani spokesperson said Dhani healthcare is a new product and things would fall in place in a month, but expressed inability to issue a formal statement on the issue. Practo responded to TOI’s queries stating that it has a zero-tolerance policy towards misbehaviour and harassment of any nature and that “all patients’ accounts are OTP verified, and that the app has a built-in feature to ensure abusive patients are flagged immediately by the doctor”. OTP verification merely confirms that the number given by the patient is accessed by the patient, but doesn’t confirm the identity of the person, pointed out a doctor.