Disha - the Statewide Blood Helpline Celebrates 10 years

A friend in need is a friend indeed. Information made available when required the most is often invaluable. Helplines are meant and designed to serve this purpose. Our social structure often provides helplines for a lot of prevalent problems. 10 years ago it was a surprise for our little team that there is no helpline to help in search of blood. It was on September 13 2006 that the statewide helpline for blood in Karnataka took flight. Today it serves as a lifeline to thousands of patients every month. Here is a lookback on the last 10 years of Disha - the direction for safe blood.

Disha is born

The formative years of Sankalp was mostly spent by volunteers attending to blood requests. Every request required a significant amount of effort in terms of searching for available units in different prominent blood banks in the city. This was to ensure better utilization of available units rather than go find blood donors every time. Replacement or emergency donations on every occasion defeats the purpose of voluntary blood donation. At times volunteers or patient families were involved in making more than 20 calls. There had to be a logical way out.

It was then the helpline way to help in search of blood was conceived. A list of blood banks in Bangalore was drawn out. The ones that are well known for collecting and storing blood from safe sources were shortlisted. Many of these blood bank officers were met and the idea of the helpline was shared. Few agreed and few expressed concerns. Nevertheless, the decision to form the helpline was deterministic. There was no looking back.

At around the same time, CTC (Comprehensive Trauma Consortium) was setting up it's ambulance helpline services. A collaborative model was worked out between CTC and Sankalp and with their help - the helpline was dedicated to the people of Karnataka on 13th September 2006 by the Hon'ble Governor of Karnataka. The 24-hour service was free of cost and promised to direct people in the search of blood to safer and well established options instead of trying to find it in multiple blood banks. It was aptly named Disha (direction)

The Big Bang Publicity

It was essential that the information about the service is made known to people. 2006 was a time when the social media revolution was in very nascent stages and it's penetration into the normal routines of people was not yet proven. Hence, a more direct method was planned.

In November 2006, volunteers of Sankalp planned a 40 km walk across Bangalore city to take the information about the helpline to the people. With placards in hand and an undying spirit to make the helpline successful, several volunteers took part in the march. Handouts were given to people in streets, every interested individual was spoken to. The print and electronic media noted down the number. The whole event to publicize the helpline seemed to be a grand success

The Concept

The concept of Disha was quite straightforward. All the blood banks who had agreed to be a part of this setup were called once every morning. Their current stock position was noted in complete detail - every group, component was recorded. From thereon, anyone who called for blood were directed to the nearest geographical location in the city where safe blood was available. The helpline never enforced policies on the blood bank - whether or not the blood bank demanded replacement, the charges applied were all the sole discretion of the blood bank.

Since the service was for 24 hours every day, it required that there are call centre executives to handle calls. These RCEs (Response Centre Executives) were trained to understand the domain of blood, the specifics of the requests etc. They were also told about directions or specific instructions to give patient families before recommending any blood bank. However, the interest and publicity generated by the march had died down. A more sustained approach for publicity had to be adopted. Slowly but surely, this was done by means of putting up stickers in government hospitals in Bangalore and keeping the information circulated through Kannada newspapers. In about 4-5 months after the initial teething problems, the helpline seemed to have found it's unique place in the society. Several patients were being benefited from this service.

An important element in the operations was record keeping. Not only were stock positions of blood banks duly recorded, every request for blood was also noted down. Initially with the help of standard Microsoft tools and later through a custom technology platform developed with the help of our technology partner, data of stocks, blood requests and related records were duly archived. Blood search was not just about a phone call to help people. It had a complete technology backplane to sustain operations.

Expanding Sankalp's Helpline

The next logical step in the helpline operations was to expand it's base outside of Bangalore. In 2009, with the help and inputs from Dr Sundar, senior transfusion specialist and blood bank medical officer at NIMHANS contact was established with nearly 120-150 blood banks in the 30 districts of the state. Volunteers of Sankalp traveled to each district, met each of these blood banks and verified for themselves the operations model, the transparency and quality practices followed by them. Eventually a list of about 50 blood banks from these districts were shortlisted and were integrated into the helpline. Disha now was a statewide blood helpline. It was the first of it's kind (first in the country) statewide unique helpline for blood with 65 networked blood banks.

Disha laid the platform for the statewide expansion of Sankalp as a whole. The contacts and connects established during the Disha reach out has been beneficial to Rakta Kranti, Bombay Group and thalassemia, the other core initiatives of Sankalp.

In 2010-2011, the helpline became a complete Sankalp owned initiative. Since the operations were expanding and had significant differences to the ambulance operations, it was decided to end the partnership with CTC. Disha was now completely handled by Sankalp volunteers and employees. This ensured building more sustainable models for the working of a blood helpline. A new BSNL number was procured and 9480044444 was the single reference point for anyone in search of blood. New stickers designed to catch the eyes of people were printed and sent in batches to all hospitals and primary care centres in the state.

The technology platform was strengthened and Sankalp employees were trained to handle blood requests. Quality checking and other mechanisms were employed to ensure that best quality of service is offered to every caller. Now, every caller also gets a SMS of the response given by the RCE so that the right information is also available digitally - an important measure to avoid confusion and ensure that timely and apt help is provided to people in distress.

Disha Today - Sankalp Front End

Today, Disha receives anything in the range of 25-40 blood requests every day from different parts of the state. The helpline has been serving the needs and guiding people towards safe blood on an everyday basis.

Over the last 2 years, calls for various reasons started coming up on the helpline. It is now an integrated system to handle all emergencies including rare group blood requests. In case units are not available in any of the networked blood banks, additional strategies are employed to ensure that the situation is dealt with - this could be sourcing blood from other cities, emergency donations for whole blood, SDP, rare groups or any other relevant measure.

Apart from this, people who wished to donate blood, who wished to organize a blood donation drive, who wish to enroll in our thalassemia day care centres, who wish to look at possible BMT options for their children also call on the helpline. The helpline is also used actively for follow up with donors who had complications in Sankalp blood donation drives, for registering families for HLA typing etc. Disha today has grown from a blood helpline to a Sankalp helpline. Our Response Centre Executives are today the front end voice of Sankalp.

On 13th September 2016, Disha completed a decade of operations - and we are happy that it has lived up to it's name of showing a direction. In hindsight it has proved to be a very good initiative and has helped protect people in need of blood from the prying eyes of professional donors. Although it would be wrong to claim that every person in need of blood in Karnataka gets access to a unit in a hassle free manner, it is true that Disha has simplified blood search considerably.

Kumari Ankita, senior volunteer and head of the Emergency Wing, Rare Group and Blood Helpline of Sankalp sums up the helpline this way,

“Disha is not just a helpline which gives information and washes it’s hands off. Requests and responses are recorded and shared transparently to the caller. The caller is also duly informed to call back in case more help is required. Disha gives voice to the work ethics of Sankalp - to ensure that any responsibility taken up is handled efficiently and fully tailored to benefit people in need. Very few services offer so much and that too completely free of cost. We are both proud and humbled that the people of Karnataka have recognised Disha as a mainstream helpline for blood”

Sankalp Unit
Patrika Section