Tech good care

Written by Kunal Doley | Updated: Sep 21 2014, 03:38am hrs
WHEN WAS the last time you looked for advice on the Web before turning to a healthcare professional after experiencing worrisome bodily symptoms Chances are, very recently and quite often. But how many times, under the same circumstances, have you actually paid to consult and receive treatment from an online medical practitioner Rarely maybe or even never.

It is to bridge this yawning gap that an army of e-preneurs is attempting to reinvent online medicare in India, especially at a time when the overall healthcare industry in the country is valued at over $80 billion (approximately R4.84 lakh crore) and is expected to double in size in about three years. However, the percentage share of its online business is miniscule and insignificant.

To say that online health services have not existed for some years may be incorrect. However, the new approaches to offering healthcare services online and the extent of interest in the segment have increased significantly in the recent past, says Sonal Sachdev, CEO of Bangalore-based Saral Health, an online healthcare portal that offers a range of services from booking doctors appointments to diagnostic tests to patients.

As per Sanjoy Mukerji, managing director of online medical consultation platform, iClinic Healthcare, online healthcare earlier was severely limited by poor video software and inadequate bandwidth for effective communication. Most of the action was happening only through government-sponsored experiments and setting up of video consultation centres by large institutions with no real focus on patient experience and consultation completion, he explains. They were limited only to a few towns. Also, most of the online consultations were based on text messages and emails, adds Mukerji.

With the spread of 3G technology, better software and an improvement in the tech-readiness of doctors and patients, there is now a real opportunity to take online healthcare to new levels. Indians are moving to the Internet to access information at a very fast pace, and the number is only going to shoot up in the coming years. With the help of technology, health portals will be able to play a significant role in improving the overall experience for patients and doctors, says Shashank ND, CEO and founder of Practo Technologies, a Bangalore-based startup that runs a doctor discovery and real-time appointment booking portal.

Positive prognosis

Today, healthcare portals are not just a click-and-read mode of communication. From lab tests and doctor appointments to home care, health insurance and wellness products, portals now offer services across the spectrum. Users can store their health records online, set alerts for medical actions, interact with other patients and get answers to questions from doctors online, among a variety of other options.

Information technology is a critical contributor in transforming and helping improve the quality, safety and efficiency of healthcare delivery, says Shashank. The possibility of innovative technology that is simple to use, cost-effective and helps data portability is a phenomenal change in how healthcare is delivered today. Additionally, IT helps standardise the delivery and documentation processes at healthcare practices, he adds.

With new and upcoming applications such as electronic medical records (EMR) and e-prescriptions, IT investments on software are only going to rise further with a focus on integrated billing and seamless online availability of patient records. As patient education and insurance penetration simultaneously increase, the demand for EMR is anticipated to increase robustly, adds Shashank.

Dhruv Kumar, founder of iCliniq, an online consultation-facilitating platform between doctors and patients, says, Wearable devices are going to be the next big wave. The big uptrend will be with how one is going to use the data collected from wearable devices for online health.

There are several other business models online. Some are focused on niches, some serve only a particular segment, while others may be focused on practitioners. But each of them has its own merits and business rationales. Most are unique in their own wayeither differentiated by service offerings, business processes or revenue models. There is room for experimentation and growth. We have barely scratched the surface in healthcare, explains Sachdev of Saral Health.

Health 2.0

Saral Health was born when Sachdev found the lack of a more systematic approach to healthcare in India. This was after he had to commute a traffic-heavy two-km-corridor from his house to the health lab in Mumbai every other day when his son had fallen ill. Saral Health now aims to become a supermarket for health services by offering patients services, from booking doctors appointments to selling health products and insurance policies.

Founded in the summer of 2012, Saral Health is initially focusing on Bangalore, tying up with hospitals such as Apollo, Fortis, Manipal, Nova Specialty and Sparsh to help set up doctors appointments. Healthcare is a universal need, so age group, gender or location are not parameters to focus on. Anybody with an Internet connection can avail of the services of healthcare portals, he adds.

The motive behind Mukerjis iClinic was similar: to whet his appetite for greater challenges and also benefit society more significantly. In 2012, Mukerji, a mechanical engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, whose last stint was as chief commercial officer at Vodafone, teamed up with friends and former colleagues Varun Berry (managing director of Britannia Industries), Ravinder Jain (consultant, Ericsson, Africa) and Dr Rajesh Kapur (senior radiologist) to start iClinic Healthcare.

While Saral Health is focused on the urban population in Bangalore for now, iClinic has an ecosystem of local doctors in tier II and III towns who assist and facilitate consultations with specialists and issue valid prescriptions at the end of the sessions. Our website model is, however, targeted at the displaced, tech-savvy youth in metros and large towns, working mothers, busy executives and corporates with a large digitally-connected staff, says Mukerji of iClinic.

Starting with a fund of just under a million dollars (approximately R6.04 crore), iClinic is now looking to raise around $4 million (approximately R24.16 crore). It hopes to break even in four to five years at a revenue of R5 crore per month.

Similarly, Practo Technologies was initially funded from family and friends for R10 lakh before getting into angel funding a year later in 2009, followed by Series A funding from Sequoia Capital in 2012 for about R25 crore. Going forward, we seek to establish a dominant presence in the healthcare segment and raise capital in the coming months. We have been growing 50-100% quarter-on-quarter, and are looking to close this fiscal year at R20 crore, says Shashank.

Practo Technologies website claims to have over one lakh doctors listed from over 310 Indian towns and cities, with comprehensive coverage from Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune. Close to 5.10 lakh unique visitors visit per month and 40,000 appointments are made every month. Traffic on the website has grown at the rate of 24% per month, says Shashank.

Coimbatore-based iCliniq claims to have over 500 doctors from more than 70 specialities available online for instant medical consultation. The company believes its pricing is its USP. A user can ask a question at just R99 to a super-specialist. Its a very simple pricing model. With just R200 (another R99 for follow-up), one would be able to solve his issue at iCliniq. No other portal offers this at such a low cost and with a high quality of reply, says company founder Kumar.

Preventive check-up

Sachdev of Saral Health believes the online health space is still evolving. It will be a while before the players settle down, establish their models and start looking to address sector issues collectively. Like in every sector, there are a unique set of challenges based on the segment one operates in. As the sector grows, many of these will start getting addressed. The bigger issues to our mind are not delivery-centric (offline/online), but industry-specific, he says.

As per Kumar of iCliniq.com, almost 60% of primary health issues can be solved online. E-health can be a sunrise industry, only that user adoption has to be more. The improvements can be in terms of assuring and providing quality consultations, safety and privacy for customers, he adds.

Sachdev of Saral Health adds that one would be surprised at the poor availability of certain products in several parts of the country. We have shipped products to locations where the cost of delivering the product far exceeds the value of the product, and customers are more than willing to pay the charges for the shipment of low-value items, he adds.

But then, as they say, health is wealth.

Our website model is targeted at the displaced, tech-savvy youth in metros and large towns, working mothers, busy executives and corporates with a large digitally-connected staff: Sanjoy Mukerji, MD, iClinic Healthcare, an online healthcare provider

Wearable devices are going to be the next big wave. The big uptrend will be with how one is going to use the data collected from wearable devices for online health: Dhruv Kumar, founder, iCliniq, a virtual hospital

It will be a while before players start looking at addressing sector issues collectively. there are a unique set of challenges. As the sector grows, many of these will start getting addressed: Sonal Sachdev, CEO, Saral Health, an online healthcare portal