Providing Important Medical Support Online for Ukrainian Refugees Living in the Czech Republic

Published: Aug 1, 2023 Reading time: 7 minutes
Providing Important Medical Support Online for Ukrainian Refugees Living in the Czech Republic
© Photo: National Cancer Institute, Unsplash

In 2022, our workers helped 38,229 Ukrainian refugees (both individuals and entire families) and together with 114 different partner organisations, we were also able to aid another 223,597 individuals and families. One particularly important partner for us has been the online advisory centre, uLékař, the largest of its kind in the Czech Republic. Here, people living in Czechia are able to quickly and discretely find a provider, set up an appointment or just ask sensitive medical questions. At first, with the sudden influx of refugees from Ukraine, the site become overloaded. As time went on, however, it has become an important resource for incoming refugees. It now offers many of its services in both Ukrainian and Russian, in addition to Czech.

“People come to a country where the health care system is considerably different: what is a request form? When should I call an ambulance? Who qualifies as a general practitioner? What kinds of medicine require a prescription and which kinds can be bought over the counter? These are the kinds of questions we can answer and information we can provide them in their language, considerably relieving traditional Czech medical facilities," explains Lucie Zdechovanová, Head of Medical & Client Services at uLékař

We sat down uLékař employees, Martin Pospíšil (CEO) and Lucie Zdechovanová (Head of Medical & Client Services) to answer some of our most burning questions. Read on to find out what they said.

You began offering your service to Ukrainian refugees very soon after the invasion on February 24, 2022. Where did you first get the idea of doing this?

Martin Pospíšil (MP): The first idea of doing something like this occurred to us even before that date. Later, ideas about how to help started coming to us from all directions. The whole company really dove into the idea of helping out with great enthusiasm. People were offering to work on weekends and became really focused on providing immediate assistance.

How quickly were you able to launch the online advisory centre in Ukrainian and Russian and what did setting it up entail?

Lucie Zdechovanová (LZ): Honestly, I think that if we had had more of a plan, it would have taken much longer to get it going. As it happened, it was kind of spontaneous. We were able to start delivering these services in less than a month. It required securing official translations, legal consultations, setting up the website for the user, creating and implementing the initial health questionnaire, ensuring a working phone number, setting up an e-mail address, and so on. All this required support from our partners, who themselves claimed no fees. Of course, it was also necessary to set up an effective workflow and, above all else, to secure a professional team of doctors and nurses. In fact, it kind of became an international project, since the services weren’t only delivered by Ukrainians, but also by Russians, Azerbaijanis and Kazakhs – the idea of support united us all.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have joined, most of them requiring a doctor sooner or later. How did they find out that they could turn to you, and how does the advisory centre actually work?

LZ: In large part, we are surely indebted to much of the help provided by People in Need. You all helped us very much to quickly distribute information about the services that we provide. We had a marketing campaign, of course, and all our services are visible online. The user must fill in the initial health form on our website and send that to a team of doctors who then answer applicant’s email directly. A nurse can then contact the user over the phone and help them find their way through the health care system, if necessary.

You have already answered or resolved more than 20,000 requests. What are the most frequent challenges and what kinds of refugees tend to turn to you the most?

LZ: First and foremost, people quickly needing to orientate themselves within the Czech health care system. People come to a country where the health care system is considerably different: what is a request form? When should I call an ambulance? Who qualifies as a general practitioner? What kinds of medicine require a prescription and which kinds can be bought over the counter? These are the kinds of questions we can answer and information we can provide them with that kind of information in their language, considerably relieving the strain placed on more traditional Czech medical facilities. 

MP: Since the beginning, one of our aims has been that the project should also be beneficial for the doctors, who were already facing an enormous strain and overloaded with work in the Czech Republic.

Can you help even in really urgent cases?

LZ: Our team is available on the phone up to midnight every day, and are available to take care even of even the most urgent issues. It is not shocking to us anymore that sometimes people coming directly from Ukraine are afraid of calling an ambulance, don’t know what basic documents are required when they visit the hospital or simply don’t know that they can go straight to the ER if it’s really an emergency (even on weekends)! 

Are there any cases that have been particularly complicated for you to deal with?

LZ: Certainly, some cases are more demanding. We’ve struggled with the availability of health care in some regions and addressing specific sorts of issues. I do not know if the following case was the most demanding, but it is surely a testament to how vital the work we do is: we once had to secure ongoing oncology care for an infant. In the past, we’ve also had to successfully establish links also to various educational psychology centres for children with various complications so that they can attend nursery schools, etc. We don’t just deal purely with physical health issues…

Your statistics show that people turn to you repeatedly.

LZ: As we’ve gained confidence and experience, we are able to save clients’ time. We’ve gradually shifted over from immediate crisis intervention to solving more standard issues. 

Let us return to the idea of the unavailability of some doctors. How do you cope with this? Do you find that sometimes you have to send patients across the country from regions where even basic health care is poorly accessible?

LZ: Speaking on the general level of general practitioners and paediatricians, this is certainly true in the Karlovy Vary and the areas surrounding Ústí nad Labem. However, I would like to emphasise that Ukrainian patients seem more than willing to travel in order to see a doctor. People from Ukraine seem to be ok with traveling hundreds of kilometres for specialised care. There isn’t a sense of bitterness if they have to go from Ústí nad Labem to a dentist in Prague.

Do you cooperate more with Ukrainian or Russian-speaking doctors in those regions?

LZ: We have strong partnerships with the organisation Lékaři pro Ukrajinu (Doctors for Ukraine) and various institutions in the city of Chekhov. We exchange contact information and always look for ways to shorten the distance people have to travel in order to find a doctor. However, we cannot promise that we can always find a Ukrainian or Russian-speaking doctor.

How do you reduce any potential language barriers between the patient and the doctor?

LZ: We strive to make communication as smooth as possible. When we send a client to a healthcare facility, we try and prepare the client as best we can in terms of the information they’ll need. We try to explain everything, that they have an appointment to a certain time for example -- because they are not used to that from home! We also send them constant reminders. We tell them what to take with them. We give them a written summary in the language they need of what needs to be discussed with the doctor.

How do you see the future of the advisory centre for refugees?

MP: Many of the refugees have gradually become our employees. Some want to stay in the Czech Republic, and we are happy to welcome them at uLékař and help them transfer their know-how into creating more premium products for companies so that Ukrainian employees can use the same service as Czechs through their employers. We plan on adding even more languages, in addition to Ukrainian and Russian, to our standard services for employees by the end of this year. We have also launched another improvement this year – the possibility of receiving eRecepts, or electronic prescriptions, from the advisory centre with a doctor’s recommendation. This is an important enhancement in the quality of our services both for Ukrainian refugees, but also for our regular Czech clientele.

Do you have any feedback from doctors with whom you do not directly cooperate? Do they refer patients to you?

LZ: Certainly. This service has opened doors to us and improved our dialogue with professional associations, such as general practitioners. We regularly attend round table discussions with the Ministry of Health here in the Czech Republic. I think that many general practitioners and specialists who previously had some level of distrust in online health care at the beginning of the invasion now want to work with us. They’ve realised that it can save them a lot of time.

MP: Generally speaking, the combination of modern digital technology and human expertise is essential. I think that the project of the Ukrainian advisory centre and the many benefits it provides clearly illustrate just how important it is and will continue to be.

*original interview conducted in Czech.

Autor: Eva Kroupová

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