All a Buzz: Influencer GP gets health advice to far corners of the online universe

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All a Buzz: Influencer GP gets health advice to far corners of the online universe

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Sandhya Ramanathan


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Fiona Cassie meets an energetic and determined Auckland GP on a one-woman campaign to save lives in the pandemic

“I’ve become a global GP,” laughs Sandhya Ramanathan. The Irish Times is the latest media outlet to feature this Grey Lynn, Auckland GP’s practical homecare tips on how to reduce the risk of mild COVID-19 becoming severe.

I really learned that, as a GP here, your primary job is to be the patient’s advocate

Dr Ramanathan’s one-hour New Year’s Eve chat with South African actress Gail Mabalane has been viewed almost 100,000 times on Instagram.

And she has no idea how many times her original 18-minute homecare video has been viewed, it has so frequently been shared, compressed and reposted.

She recorded the video in a single take on a Sunday night in June, in the midst of packing for her son’s school camp. “I was desperate to help.”

That initial YouTube post has garnered nearly 450,000 views. A Hindi version, posted on the Facebook page of Delhi’s Punjab Kesari newspaper, is just short of five million views.

A total of 14 versions have been dubbed, in languages from Arabic to Gujarati, and are circulating the world by numerous channels, from WhatsApp to Twitter. German is next on the list and a Swedish GP is also seeking to join the many volunteer translators.

“I’m going to be doing this until the freaking cows come home,” jokes the Indian-born, Australian-raised and trained GP.

Dr Ramanathan’s effort in turning research and expert advice into an easily understood homecare plan viewed by millions is why New Zealand Doctor| Rata Aotearoa chose her for our To Infinity and Beyond award.

IN A PANDEMIC year, when many doctors and nurses have gone the extra mile, Dr Ramanathan’s COVID care guide – initially collated to help her extended family in India, the US and the UK – went many miles beyond these shores.

It saw her invited by India’s National Institute of Disaster Management to speak at three webinars. In January, the institute wrote thanking her for her “efforts to help India fight this COVID-19 pandemic and for encouraging people to adopt the appropriate behaviour”.

Other thanks come personally via social media. A Hindi-speaking COVID-19 patient credited Dr Ramanathan’s balloon-blowing exercises for saving her life by restoring her failing oxygen saturation.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” says Dr Ramanathan of the past eight months.

“I had two objectives – one was to alleviate suffering by helping the poorest people help themselves. The second is I wanted to alleviate the workload of the doctors.”

The “gone viral” doctor, who arrived in Sydney as a three month-old with her family from India, never envisaged she would end up a Kiwi GP and a global video star. Soon after graduating from the University of New South Wales in 1999, the young medical graduate met her now Greenlane Clinical Centre cardiothoracic surgeon husband, Indran Ramanathan, at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital.

After marrying, she started her GP training and was nine weeks’ pregnant and nauseous when she sat her final GP exams and started work in her father-in-law’s Sydney practice.

Two children, Aaliya and Rayan, came in quick succession (they’re now 16 and 15 respectively), before the family headed to the US for her husband’s cardiothoracic fellowships.

When he was offered a short-term position at Greenlane, New Zealand seemed a great place for a holiday but not to live.

Sandhya Ramanathan says it was a “horrific” journey from New York in 2008 with two preschoolers, but Auckland airport’s immigration officer gave the family a warm welcome, and her views began to soften.

Compared with Australia, she found, as an Auckland GP, she had little access to affordable diagnostic tests or specialist appointments for patients.

“I really learned that, as a GP here, your primary job is to be the patient’s advocate – particularly if they are not privately insured – you really have to fight for their case.”

Sandhya Ramanathan’s video homecare plan for mild COVID-19 is available in 14 languages and counting

HER PANDEMIC VIDEO went viral in part, she says, because she can communicate in simple, non-patronising language.

Her advice is: “Don’t assume anything. There is no knowledge too simple to share.”

She says her best video breaks down the issue of mild depression and anxiety into plain language and offers tips on building resilience.

Her homecare video for mild-to-moderate COVID-19 got some criticism from peers for not including references and sources. Dr Ramanathan’s response is that her video aimed to simplify her constant reading and research for the ordinary person.

“At the end of the day, nothing that I’ve suggested will cause harm.

“I think Western medicine is a little bit arrogant that way – yes, we need evidence-based [research]. But you are in a pandemic, for God’s sake.”

The later dubbings have removed the brief mentions of hydroxychloroquine, then widely used in India prophylactically, and azithromycin, and emphasised calls to seek medical advice about local medication protocols.

Aware she is an (unpaid) “influencer”, she puts one or more hours a night into reading, editing and posting. “I’m happy to do it as it’s spreading knowledge,” she says.

Collective knowledge is power and sharing knowledge – in the spirit of To Infinity and Beyond – can save many, many lives, Dr Ramanathan says.

The award
  • The To Infinity and Beyond award is given annually to a GP, selected totally subjectively by the New Zealand Doctor|Rata Aotearoa editorial team, for going the extra distance to assist their patients, community or profession.

  • Dr Ramanathan follows in the footsteps of Sarah Creegan, Tim Malloy, Graham Gulbransen, Chris Henry, Chris Reid, Sue Bagshaw, Richard Medlicott, Phil Schroeder, Paul Bowker, Kathy James, Sue Walthert, Bill Douglas, Nikki Turner, Shane Reti and the late Pat Farry.

  • The winner receives the increasingly rare and coveted Buzz Lightyear action figure.

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