The ripple effect of a global interdisciplinary peer-support program

21 October 2021

By Barbara Corapi

The world watched in horror as case numbers in India exploded during the country’s second wave of COVID19 in April 2021, creating a devastating ripple effect. At its worst, India was reporting over 400,000 new cases and 6,148 deaths per day.

Driven by emotion and a sheer determination to help, Dipti Talaulikar, a physician scientist and Associate Professor at the ANU Medical School, together with Mr Jay Poria, International Relations and Partnerships Manager at the ANU College of Health and Medicine, established an international collaboration of health care professionals, to support colleagues in India. Today, the program is creating ripples of its own as it inspires new ideas and global expansion.

“I was getting calls from my networks in India asking for clinical advice and help. The health care system was so overwhelmed with patients that the nurses and doctors, and particularly junior doctors, were struggling to know how to respond,” says Dipti.

The COVID19 Peer Support Program matched volunteer doctors and health care professionals in Australia with Indian health care professionals, to provide peer-to-peer support, advice and access to international senior doctors, for those in need.

“We had a phenomenal response to the program. Over 220 doctors, nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists, and medical students from every state and territory in Australia and even overseas, from countries such as Fiji and Singapore, have signed up to volunteer,” advised Associate Professor Talaulikar.

As the larger Indian hospitals and academic centres put solutions in place to support clinicians around the country, the team started to see requests for education to groups of health professionals—and this was the beginning of the International COVID19 Peer Support webinar series.

“At first we started sharing our expertise, utilising Australian presenters with panel members from India. But as the webinar series went on, we found that the contacts we had in India had more experience dealing with the Delta strain and had additional insights into topics such as paediatrics and maternal care – and in fact, we in Australia and other countries could learn from them also,” explained Associate Professor Talaulikar.

The engagement from healthcare professionals has gone from strength to strength with professionals from over 36 countries now joining the network. The program itself operates with a core group of 17 volunteers, including students from various universities, community members, and industry members.

Third year ANU medical student Ms Devashi Paliwal, originally from India, had very personal reasons for volunteering her time.

“I was feeling quite helpless and distraught knowing that my family and friends were severely affected and that multiple people I knew were dying. Volunteering has helped me find meaning and empowerment at a time when I’ve felt traumatised and helpless,” Ms Paliwal said.

The program has also inspired other ideas. Under the guidance of Dr Sutarsa Nyoman, Lecturer at the ANU Medical School, the volunteer students will now launch a similar student-led global peer support initiative in 2022.  

Ms Paliwal explained, “Our Link and Share program is about offering a platform to connect with and provide support to medical students across different countries. Some of my global peers have been on the frontline, have had their medical education disrupted and are feeling isolated and probably distressed. We hope the network will allow us to engage in meaningful discussions, share experiences and stories and learn from each other and experts.”

The COVID-19 Peer Support Program has attracted the financial support of the National Capital Private Hospital, and the team are now planning for the 2022 webinar series, which will include topics such as value-based health care. There are also plans to launch a series of other programs such as supporting women wanting to move into, and those already in, health leadership positions; and supporting health innovation for low resource settings.

Associate Professor Talaulikar said with a smile, “This program is all about people. Starting up the program has been an amazing journey and although I often feel exhausted, all I need to do to feel energised is think about the incredible effort that everyone – from the presenters, to the student volunteers, to the participants of the webinars - has contributed.”