Why women in India are seeking health advice online

  • Joanna Lobo, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 11, 2015 16:02 IST
Women across India are logging on to seek medical advice, signing up for e-consultancies, and posting anonymous queries on subjects they are hesitant to discuss with ‘family doctors’. (Illustration:Ravi Jadhav)

Most women dread going to the gynaecologist. But in India, the dread is deeper if you’re single, gay, unmarried, childless… it’s a long list, and any woman on it is more or less bound to get a lecture.

Take Shreya*. Last year, the 26-year-old got yet another lecture on how a quick marriage and quick pregnancy would help fight her endometriosis, a condition in which tissue grows outside the womb, causing severe cramps, pelvic pain and painful sex.

“Can you imagine hearing this again and again? It’s not only an unscientific approach, it’s a preachy lecture on what I should do,” says the Delhi-based writer. “This time, I decided I had had it.”

The Crowdsourced List of Gynaecologists We Trust was initiated this June by four friends in search of non-judgmental and moralistic doctors. This list covers 200 doctors across 23 cities.

So, in June, when the pain resurfaced, she decided to try a different approach and logged on to a crowdsourced list she had stumbled upon on Twitter a few weeks earlier. Called The Crowdsourced List of Gynaecologists We Trust, the crowdsourced list was started by four women - Amba, Pavithra, Manishbhai and Richa* - in June.

OoWomaniya started in 2013, is a website that has 75 doctors dealing with over 20 issues associated with menstruation, breast care, pregnancy, sex, relationships and fitness.

Like Shreya, they were tired of every visit turning into an evaluation of their life choices, so they decided to invite women from across the country to list and rank their gynaecs on a total of 40 parameters, including how they would react to alternative sexual lifestyles, to a patient being accompanied by an unrelated man, or even, for instance, to discussing sexuality among the physically challenged. The list now covers 200 doctors across 23 cities, including Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Thrissur and Indore.

Shreya opted for a doctor who was listed as non-judgemental and unlikely to overmedicate. “She keeps me informed at every stage of my treatment,” Shreya says. “Plus, she doesn’t preach or patronise and is not judgmental about my sex life.”

Like Shreya, women across India are increasingly using online platforms such as Gynaecologists We Trust, the two-year-old OoWomaniya, an online network platform for women’s health and wellness, and the 10-month-old Lybrate, to seek neutral medical advice, post anonymous queries on subjects that they are hesitant to discuss with ‘family doctors’, and sign up for e-consultancies.

Lybrate aims to bridge the doctor-patient gap, digitally. As of today, it receives 20,000 queries from women, a 70% to 80% jump from what the user traffic was when it launched in January.

These websites have certified doctors, counsellors, dietitians and nutritionists across categories such as menstruation, breast care, pregnancy, sex, relationships and fitness. “We wanted to be able to answer any question a woman may have about her health, and provide her with a safe and anonymous platform to get them answered,” says OoWomaniya co-founder Sneh Bhavsar, 30, a business analyst.

Based on the nature of the query, a notification is sent out to a specific doctor or specialist, who typically responds in four to eight hours.

Srushti Pandya, 24, for instance, chanced upon OoWomaniya through a random internet search and posted a query about managing period pain. “My menstrual cramps are usually intense,” says Pandya, a communications student at Gujarat University. “I got a response from a fitness expert the same day. We discussed the effects of stress and unhealthy lifestyles, and I was advised to eat more iron-rich food and meditate to de-stress. This advice on simple lifestyle changes really helped.”

Profile shoot of Monica Yadav in Ahmedabad on September 24, 2015. (HT Photo)

For Monica Yadav, a 24-year-old education entrepreneur, the numerous articles on ovarian cysts were most helpful. “I have cysts, so I was glad to find a website where I could read credible articles by qualified doctors on healthy food habits and lifestyle changes to manage the condition. The articles offer simple, doable tips like cutting down on sweets and practising yoga.”

What really entices women to these portals is the promise of privacy, experts say.

Most women are uncomfortable discussing their sexual health, says Dr A Chakravarthy, who is a consultant on reproductive and sexual health on OoWomaniya. “Women also prefer that we don’t talk about the social aspect related to sex, and just focus on the medical details. Online, they can open up anonymously.” Dr Chakravarthy says he answers at least two fertility, contraception or sexual health-related questions on the website every day.

Lybrate user Vahini* would agree with Dr Chakravarthy. She consulted a doctor using the website’s audio call facility when she missed her period and suspected a pregnancy. “I am 28 and sexually active, but I knew I couldn’t tell my mom,” says the Delhi-based sociology student.

Nanda was relieved to hear that she was not pregnant, after she was asked to share results of a her blood test with the doctor she was consulting. Nanda paid Rs 800 for three such virtual audio consultations.

“The doctor told me that my menstrual cycle had been disturbed due to wrong dietary habits. All I had to do was to change the way I eat,” says Nanda. “The best thing was that a consultation on such a sensitive problem happened over three phone calls without my privacy being invaded even once.”

(* Last names withheld on request; with inputs from Annona Dutt)

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