In the time of social distancing, telemedicine has emerged as the preferred means of seeking quality healthcare in the country and in a stroke of great timing for once, the government cleared telemedicine guidelines just days after the lockdown. This clarity brought a huge wave of telemedicine platforms to the fore with startups leading the way.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently in a video conference with chief ministers of state governments urged all the states to shift their focus towards telemedicine to tackle Covid-19, and ensure minimum loss of life.
With the government’s new guidelines unlocking the prospects for the telemedicine industry, there have been numerous startups that are establishing and announcing their venture in the segment. Interestingly, it is not just startups, the Indian government is also viewing telemedicine as the go-to option to curb the pandemic.
Recently, the government launched a new Aarogya Setu Mitr app that offers free telemedicine and consultation services for coronavirus-related inquiries. The app was launched in collaboration with Tata Bridgital Health, Swasth Foundation, Project StepOne and Tech Mahindra’s healthcare brand Connectsense Telehealth to offer teleconsultation services form verified doctors.
Startups offering telemedicine, teleconsultations and remote doctors are witnessing a spurt in investment and the market is wide open for everybody to play an active role in providing quality healthcare access to billions of people in the country. India’s digital connectivity quotient is growing by the day, with 500 Mn active internet users as per IAMAI’s May 2020 report.
With smartphone and internet penetration growing, both urban and rural Indian consumers are getting more comfortable with digital platforms with each passing day and are adopting new technologies that can improve their lifestyle. Given the lack of access to quality healthcare, especially in rural India, telemedicine can be a revolutionary tool that has the power to minimise these critical imbalances through technology.
Bridging the healthcare gap in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, telemedicine has the ability to provide access to healthcare facilities at the grass-root level. According to DataLabs, the telemedicine market in India is expected to touch $5.4 Bn by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 31%.
Some of the notable startups in the telemedicine space in India include Tattvan E Clinics, Portea, mFine, myUpchar, Practo and Lybrate among others.
Lockdown Unleashes The Potential Of Telemedicine
“Telemedicine is not just a business anymore, it is also a social responsibility,’ said Ayush Mishra, founder and CEO, Tattvan E Clinics. The need for telemedicine has definitely risen in recent times under the present condition of lockdown. And now that the telemedicine has legal clarity from the government, the resistance towards the service has reduced.
Gurugram-based telemedicine startup Tattvan follows a ‘brick and mortar’ model and provides advanced last-mile healthcare services to patients across India. The company has more than 15 clinics in various cities of UP, Jharkhand, Uttrakhand, Pune and Hyderabad. It has tied up with premier hospitals such as Medanta Medicity, Artemis and others.
Currently, Tattavan is running physical telemedicine clinics in Tier 2 and tier 3 cities in India. Further explaining, Mishra said that these models are similar to ATM-like kiosks which have an internet connection. “With the help of a nurse present at the kiosk, a patient can get more than 42 diagnostic tests done on the spot. The report can be transferred to the doctors in less than five minutes,” he added.
“Ever since the Covid-19 outbreak, there has been a paradigm shift in technology adoption as far as healthcare is concerned,” said Vaibhav Tiwari, COO, Portea Medical, an end-to-end healthcare service provider. He said that outside the hospital healthcare is becoming very critical, along with home care. “Connected devices, which can be used to monitor patients remotely have also started picking up lately,” he added.
Portea relaunched its telemedicine platform recently and in the last few months, it has witnessed tremendous growth. “We believe that healthcare is a combination of telemedicine along with healthcare outside hospitals and our reach to the patient’s home is a very critical aspect of this chain,” Tiwari added.
Bengaluru-based Portea is present in top 20 cities across India. “We do see a lot of scope in primary care services, preventive care, elderly care, chemotherapy at home, etc. and we are continuously expanding our presence and offerings in these areas,” said Tiwari.
Accelerated By Covid-19, Driven By Tech
“The major hindrance in the adoption of the telemedicine services has been the trust issue which exists due to limited exposure to online services,” said Rajat Garg, cofounder at myUpchar.
Further, he said when it comes to healthcare, Tier 2 and 3 audience generally believed in a physical checkup more than a virtual one. However, due to Covid-19, myUpchar has seen a jump of 3x in consultation requests. Many other startup founders also believe that once users experience the telemedicine platforms and get habituated to the service, they will permanently move to online consultations for everyday illnesses.
Based in New Delhi, myUpchar offers quality healthcare content, teleconsultations, medicines, lab tests on various platforms, including YouTube, TikTok and their own website. The company is backed by angel investors such as Sequoia India’s Rajan Anandan, Indifi cofounder Alok Mittal and Teamwork Arts’ Mohit Satyanand as well as venture capital firms Omidyar, Nexus Venture Partners and Shunwei Capital. It works with doctors from several hospitals such as Medanta, Fortis and Max to create content in regional Indian languages.
Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, chief health strategy officer at Practo, also believes that each general physician on their platform typically consults 25-30 patients a day, but in the last few weeks the number has grown by up to 4x. “An increase in this number is not physically possible to consult,” said Kuruvilla, “This is when teleconsultation becomes the need of the hour and can enable doctors and increase efficiency so they can consult more patients online.”
Throwing light from a tech perspective, Prasad Kompalli, cofounder and CEO at mFine, said that given the lack of doctors in India and the high turnaround time for cases, telemedicine can also cover pre-consultation and post-consultation using AI platforms. This would allow more time to address more queries and patients. Bengaluru-based mFine has partnered with the likes of Aster, Sunshine, SIMS Hospital, Sparsh among other multispeciality hospitals. “We onboard quality hospitals, instead of individual doctors for every patient as that gives us the quality of service,” said Kompalli.
“People are more comfortable talking to their own doctors and as a telemedicine platform we are well-positioned to service all doctors,” said Saurabh Arora, founder and CEO at Lybrate, “We are just facilitators and not doctors — all we are doing is connecting doctors to patients and giving them a medium and tool to connect.”
Further, he said that as a telemedicine platform our role would be to help users, connect with more doctors, and make sure the entire experience is trusted, smooth and transparent so that the new online way of accessing healthcare becomes the safe, go-to option for both doctors as well as patients.
New-Delhi based Lybrate is an online and mobile-based platform that connects patients and doctors across the country, covering almost 92% of the postal codes in India. Currently, the company has over 15 Mn users on its platform and caters more than 200+ Mn interactions, annually. Lybrate is backed by eminent investors such as Ratan Tata, Nexius Ventures and Tiger Global Management.
How Has Telemedicine Grown In The Pandemic?
“Most of the queries that we receive are related to the patients seeking a second medical opinion from the specialists in case of acute illnesses and elective procedures where the initial diagnosis has already taken place,” said Tattvan’s Mishra.
He said that the patients use their platform for a follow-up consultation with their doctors. “Ever since the lockdown, private clinics have also shut down, and we connect these doctors with their existing patients and help to run a smooth online teleconsultation. The usual categories of consultation are from patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension or issues related to neurology and cardiovascular disorders,” he added.
Practo’s Kuruvilla, on the other hand, said that in the last one month, the top queries have been related to fever, cough, cold, sore throat and body ache, and increased by 200%. More than 50% of all online consultancy questions were related to coronavirus. Furthermore, the company revealed that they witnessed a significant increase in the number of people using online consultation, who were of the age group 60+ and above.
Also, it said that close to 40% of all their teleconsultations happened in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. Besides this, cities with most queries included Bengaluru, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune and Chennai. In the non-metro cities, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Bhubaneswar and Indore were the top cities to use Practo’s telemedicine services.
Moreover, the company said that queries for gynaecology grew by more than 250% since the coronavirus outbreak. In paediatrics, it witnessed a growth of 350% in terms of online consultations since March 1, 2020.
Similarly, myUpchar also said that tons of doctors are adopting teleconsultation platforms in a big way. “When users realise that 85% to 90% of the case don’t require a physical consultation, they will eventually demand an online option,” said Garg.
Seeing The Bigger Picture
Tattvan believes that the priority in the telemedicine sector now has to be ensuring access to hospitals and doctors at the rural and grassroots level. It is creating a new network and clusters for Lucknow, Indore and other cities. In the coming years, the company plans to have 30 clinics in India and 10 clinics abroad as well. “Even though the growth has been slightly limited, the coming years paints a vivid picture with respect to the growth of the telemedicine sector, especially in India. We are expecting high investments from the private sectors in the field of telemedicine,” Mishra added.
Amid the uncertainties caused by Covid-19 and social distancing becoming the new norm, there is still a glimmer of hope in the Indian healthcare ecosystem, where these healthcare players are lightening the burden on hospitals, clinics and healthcare facilities in these critical times and are ensuring both patients and doctors are safe and are able to provide healthcare facilities to billions of Indians.
“Doctors are fighting their heart and soul in these tough times. Few of them have even opened their clinics, along with providing teleconsultation services. We will go the extra mile and make sure to be the final calls for our users,” concluded Lybrate’s Arora.