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Inside the student-run non-profit organization providing free medical care to Ukrainians

As Russia began its military invasion of Ukraine in late February, Sol Savchuk MD ’24 and Zoe von Gerlach MS ’23 sought a window on the front lines. Like so many other Ukrainian Stanford students, they were desperate for a way to help the resistance effort.

“For two days we were glued to our phones,” Savchuk said. “We were recovering from the shock that this happened in the 21st century, even though we shouldn’t have.”

But rather than thinking about heavy artillery or emergency supplies, the couple visualized another form of support: health care. Only three days after the initial invasion, the idea of TeleHelp Ukraine was born.

TeleHelp Ukraine connects people in Ukraine seeking medical care with doctors around the world, virtually and for free. (Photo courtesy of TeleHelp Ukraine)

Gerlach and Savchuk, who are both Ukrainians, were intrigued by the idea of ​​combining telecommunications with medical care. Virtual clinical services have become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic as medical students around the world have learned to communicate and serve patients through video platforms.

“We first thought of just setting up the Zoom link, and then we realized how much more complicated it actually was,” Gerlach said.

The founders of TeleHelp considered many factors, including the physician recruitment process, the type of technology platform needed, and the implications of the platform for ease of navigation, even with varying levels of internet connection.

For Savchuk and Gerlach, it was essential to be able to assign specialists to help their patients while using their preferred language – Ukrainian or Russian.

They noticed that other telehealth platforms had a problem with English-only clinicians who had signed up to help but were unable to volunteer effectively due to the language barrier with patients. TeleHelp Ukraine uses interpreters, allowing them to use international practitioners while avoiding language barriers.

Language barriers “motivated us to provide this specific platform and that’s what makes TeleHelp Ukraine different and unique from other telehealth solutions,” Gerlach said.

Navigating difficult beginnings

Like many new nonprofits, the TeleHelp Ukraine team had initial difficulties reaching patients in need. “Starting an organization like this…from scratch, especially as people who aren’t serious entrepreneurs, certainly posed a lot of challenges,” Gerlach said.

It took several months for the organization to build its platform. They worked to create a strong social media presence in their first months of reaching Ukrainians.

“Just because you have a product doesn’t mean people know where to find it,” said Eva Morgun, COO of Telehelp.

At just three months old, TeleHelp Ukraine reaches thousands of people a day through platforms like Instagram and Facebook. The organization also used local news stations, newspapers, and word-of-mouth marketing strategies to reach more people.

TeleHelp Ukraine has grown tremendously thanks to its strong media presence, its dedicated team of directors and volunteers, and its “comprehensive mission” to help those in need, Savchuk said. Currently, it has more than 50 volunteers, 20 interpreters, 60 clinicians and several educational advisers.

Operations

Patients can make an appointment via the TeleHelp website, where they choose between the categories of services available, ranging from mental health to pediatric care. After filling out some basic information regarding the type of care they need and the language they prefer, they are matched with doctors and interpreters based on availability.

Health navigators help patients attend their scheduled appointment if complications arise. Appointments are three-way calls between the interpreter, doctor, and patient, which can increase the likelihood of logistical issues. Health Navigators provide patients with trusted resources.

“The Health Navigator [role] is very important because we have a lot of patients in Ukraine who don’t necessarily have the most advanced cellphones, and they probably don’t have updated browsers,” Morgun said.

Priority to mental health

Mental health is a top priority for the entire TeleHelp team due to lack of awareness in traditional Ukrainian society, Morgun and Solchuk said. They specifically sought out mental health specialists and this is one of the areas that has flourished since the organization was founded.

“Mental Health [awareness] in Ukraine was not the strongest initially,” Savchuck said. “When patients started showing signs of mental health problems, Ukraine [policy] wasn’t necessarily ready to answer it.

Many residents were constantly confronted trauma such as fear of loss, separation from families, social isolation and forced migration due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Traumatic experiences have many long-term effects on their emotional and physical health, causing problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.

“People are now aware that they need help,” Savchuk said. “Not only patients and refugees, but also the volunteers and providers who help these refugees. It’s there that [TeleHelp Ukraine] could come in and satisfy their needs.

TeleHelp served over 100 patients, with more appointments and virtual meetings each week. With many patients signing up, the team hopes to expand its range of services, to help as many people as possible.

“Everyone on the team put in countless hours, days, weeks and months to make this happen,” Gerlach said. “We can even hopefully continue to expand the services offered and see more and more patients.”

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