Within the space of just 48 hours, the Croatian Institute of Public Health sent three urgent requests to the Innovative Pharmaceutical Initiative (IF!), the country’s R&D pharmaceutical trade association. The health agency needed medically trained volunteers to staff its COVID-19 call center, which was being inundated with inquiries from citizens worried about coronavirus infection. The Institute knew that success in containing the virus hinged on being able to provide timely and accurate information to the public. It also knew that Croatia's pharmaceutical companies employed the largest number of healthcare professionals outside the healthcare system itself.
IF! forwarded the health agency's request to its contacts at member companies – including Irena Hampel Hršak, Amgen's senior manager of Value, Access & Policy. After discussing the request with their managers, she and her colleague Neven Vucelic, who is a medical science liaison and – like Hampel Hršak – a medical doctor, decided to answer the call.
By the third week of March, 187 volunteers from innovative and generic pharmaceutical companies in Croatia had responded to the Institute's request. All were Croatian citizens, trained as physicians or pharmacists, and employed in the pharmaceutical industry in a variety of roles, from access and marketing to medical, regulatory, and even senior management. Drs. Hampel Hršak and Vucelic, along with the other volunteers, agreed to work two-hour shifts daily between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The Institute organized an online orientation and training session for the volunteers on March 22. "Early that morning," Dr. Vucelic recalled, "a 5.5-magnitude earthquake shook Zagreb [the Croatian capital], causing severe damage to the city and literally throwing many of us out of our beds." Despite the quake and its aftershocks, the online training went forward just three hours later. Remarkably, 122 volunteers participated, even as the ground beneath them continued to tremble.
The volunteers got to work in earnest the following day. Incoming calls to the Institute were redirected to mobile phones of the volunteers, who answered from their own homes. Callers posed a wide range of questions covering not just COVID-19 symptom identification but also prevention, travel restrictions and options for patients who needed help in identifying transport to distant hospitals for chemotherapy treatment.
Volunteers assigned to each time slot formed their own WhatsApp groups for sharing experiences and locating information. When asked a question for which they didn't have the answer, volunteers could post the question to others in their group, who were often able to provide the right answer within seconds. Additionally, each group had support from an epidemiologist in identifying information that could not be found in available sources and in answering especially challenging queries.
Dr. Hampel Hršak recalled a particularly memorable interaction with one caller – a nurse who had been hospitalized for COVID-19, recovered without symptoms, but subsequently re-tested positive 30 days later. "The caller asked if she needed to remain in self-isolation in order to avoid infecting others, even though she was herself asymptomatic. I researched the question," Dr. Hampel Hršak remembered, "but my sources gave conflicting guidance. I promised the patient I would study the question further and call back, which – to the patient's astonishment – I did the next day with the good news that the patient was free to end her self-isolation." In the meantime, the patient had received a new negative test result. Her palpable sense of relief, Dr. Hampel Hršak recalled, was priceless to observe.
"I find this work extremely rewarding," Dr. Hampel Hršak commented. "It makes me very happy to have this opportunity to give back to society at such a difficult time – when we are living through a pandemic as well as a major natural disaster. For me, it's very gratifying to hear the relief in the voices of callers when we are able to answer their questions and resolve their concerns." Added Dr. Vucelic, "I've never been more proud to be part of the innovative pharmaceutical industry. Being able to use my professional knowledge to help addresss people's worries gives me a great sense of personal satisfaction."