Online Treatment for Addiction in India Is Just the Start of a Global Medical Network

One doctor is pioneering online treatment for addiction in India

Opium withdrawal leaves your body physically and mentally aching for more.

It’s not the drug that’s doing any damage anymore, it’s the former addict’s own body turned against itself. There’s anxiety, depression, and insomnia. There’s nausea, aching bones, cramps, and fever.

In India, a recent change in the law to ban doda post, or opium husk, has led almost 20,000 former addicts to suddenly confront these potentially debilitating symptoms.

The swell of recovering addicts led to the creation of horribly named ‘detoxification camps’ across six states, but local doctors were still forced to seek help elsewhere.

They found at least a partial solution more than 8,000 miles away in the U.S. Here, an expat doctor is using Skype to treat hundreds of addicts online. His program could not only bring relief to patients in India, but also demonstrate how online treatment for addiction via video conferencing can be used to solve healthcare problems across international borders, even in the most extreme environments.

Fighting Opium Addiction with Skype

The doctor in question, Dr. Dilip Karan Rathore, is currently treating around 300 patients through a series of video conference calls. He meets with former addicts over Skype three times a week, outside clinical hours and on weekends. These sessions last for up to five hours, and include physical blood sugar and blood pressure tests conducted by local physicians in India.

From there, the process involves monitoring patients’ intake of prescription pills that act as opium substitutes, and slowing trying to wean them off this substance. Dr. Rathore has enjoyed success, but success with opium withdrawal treatment is measured at a lower level than other healthcare outcomes. Almost a third of his patients are now free from drug dependence.

That success rate is similar to those enjoyed by more traditional, in-house methods of treatment that see patients relapse at a rate of 60%.

No one is suggesting a 70% failure rate is perfect, but at least it puts Dr. Rathore’s online methodology on par with the more common approach. That means it’s at least as effective, and that there’s potential to repeat this type of online therapy in other troubled locations.

Online Treatment for Addiction

Other researchers have also found common ground between online and in-person treatments in the fight to help people quit smoking. Studies in the U.S. and Canada found there was no significant difference between the success rates of smokers seeking help online or at a brick-and-mortar clinic.

In fact, they found the anonymity of seeking help from home via the internet actively encouraged smokers to attempt to quit in the first place. It seems there’s still stigma attached to seeking medical help and admitting you have a problem.

The point is that’s three separate examples of video calling being just as effective as a real-world doctor. Of course, the advantage of the Skype doctor is that he or she can travel almost anywhere using video calling, and can bring with them specific knowledge sensitive to particular cultures, like Dr. Rathore is doing.

Doctors Are Telecommuting to War Zones

Some American doctors have already taken this online approach to medical aid into the hostile conditions of war zones. They are currently aiding their colleagues in Syria by providing advice and support in real-time over video calling links. Critical care experts in the U.S. are available to supervise surgeries, review x-rays and lab results, and diagnose patients. They’ve even gone so far as to provide satellite hardware so their counterparts can get the aid they need despite the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

That’s an extreme example, and a big leap from the Indian-American addiction partnership, but it’s the kind of full embrace of technology the medical community needs to make to get the most out of the digital age.

We should have disease prevention and containment experts on call to bring instant help to doctors in the midst of natural disaster. We could provide virtual pediatricians to help monitor children in refugee camps.

We should have experts available to aid in mass screening sessions to detect skin cancers or early signs of macular degeneration in parts of the world where doctors are in short supply. Every time a doctor in a place of urgent need opens a laptop or turns on a PC, his workload should be halved. Even in the U.S., there’s a shortage of primary care physicians that video conferencing could help solve.

What Dr. Rathore has done for Indian opium addicts is lighten the load on their local doctors by providing an online service just as robust as an in-person visit. The ubiquity of video calling should offer opportunities for other doctors to do the same.

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