Indian government’s response to Covid-19 crisis
In lieu of coronavirus pandemic, India announced a 21-day lockdown, effective from March 25th. The lockdown has been extended multiple times, currently extended till May 17th. Telemedicine is getting a lot of traction across the world, with most countries encouraging people to opt for e-consultation with doctors using a video call, chat, or phone before going to a hospital. In a country like India, where there is a demand-supply gap in the number of doctors catering to the massive population, telemedicine could be the way forward in this crisis. Telemedicine offers an opportunity to “load balance” and increase physician supply in worst-hit areas. Additionally, health systems can maximize workforce potential by using quarantined physicians to provide virtual care.
One month ago, the Indian government passed telemedicine practice guidelines (https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/Telemedicine.pdf) to set the guidance of remote consultations in India. This has set a path for the widespread adoption of telemedicine in the short and the long term. These guidelines were passed in the hope that it will push people to consult with a verified doctor instead of self-medicating and be able to do it affordably. This will especially help the Tier-2 cities and rural areas of India where medical infrastructure is lacking, and people travel hundreds of miles to reach test centers.
Founded in 2007, Practo is one of the earliest digital healthcare platforms that currently offer online consultation, medicine delivery, and appointments to the test centers. For online consultations, the user can enter their symptoms and get matched with a doctor, or alternatively, they can choose the doctors of their choice. In late 2018, the startup also ventured into medical insurance services.
Practo creates values by bringing the patients (demand) and doctors/hospital management systems (supply) on the same platform. The value of the platform enhances with increased usage as the two-sided network effects kick-in over time. For value capturing, Practo makes the bulk of its revenue by selling two products – Practo Ray, a cloud-based, subscription-based practice management software for doctors and clinics and Practo Reach, an ad platform that allows hospitals, clinics, and diagnostic centers to advertise to local consumers.
Practo’s response to Covid-19 crisis
Practo has seen a huge surge in its business during Covid -19 pandemic. Practo’s online consultation is witnessing an average increase of 16% week-on-week, which was growing at 20% per month, a month ago. Most queries are related to symptoms of Covid-19 such as fever, cough, cold and sore throat, accounting for an increase in 200% in one week after the lockdown. There is also an increase in online queries for Gynecology, which grew by more than 250 percent since the coronavirus outbreak. Each general physician on Practo typically consults about 25-30 patients per day, but, in the last three weeks the number of consultation requests on Practo’s platform has shot up significantly. On the platform, the users can share reports, images, make video calls, and get access to a doctor with ETAs of less than 60 seconds.
To capture this tremendous opportunity, Practo has upheaved its operating model significantly in the last one month. Firstly, in a matter of four weeks, Practo has developed an ‘Artificial Intelligence’ tool that collects basic information from patients by guiding them through a set of questions to ascertain their health, symptoms, and age. The tool leverages WHO protocols to profile high-risk people by taking their travel and contact history. This tool is highly beneficial as it enables a doctor to consult with many more patients in a small amount of time, which is critical to stop the spread of the virus. As the tool gets trained with more data, Practo hopes the tool will reach a state of minimal human advisory.
Secondly, to meet the spike in consultation demands, Practo increased its doctor base by close to 50% in a month so that the platform can handle increased consultation requests. Practo has also created a rich pipeline of doctors and hospitals that will be added to the platform over the next few months. Practo has been leveraging many digital resources such as video conferences to enable these doctors to handle Covid-19 symptoms-related online consultations. Practo has created a task force of senior doctors who are exclusively recruited to train the practitioners via digital media to ensure high-quality consultations.
Practo also recently launched a monthly healthcare plan which offers unlimited online doctor consultations for Covid-19 symptoms. The patient can consult with doctors on the platform without worrying about the fees every time. This plan was put in place to encourage people to consult with doctors and not self-medicate or ignore the symptoms. Practo also launched ‘India Health Hour’ digital initiative to provide free consultation hours to all Indians for an hour through the platform. Through this initiative, the doctors get the opportunity to volunteer to provide free service for the nation.
Lastly, at the end of March, Practo announced that it has collaborated with Thyrocare, a diagnostic lab authorized by Govt. of India, to conduct COVID-19 detection tests. Once the test is booked through the app or the website, a phlebotomist collects samples from the patient’s home directly and the patient is not required to step out of home for testing. The report can be accessed by the patients on the Practo website 24 to 48 hours after the sample collection
I believe that the Covid-19 has the potential to become the booster shot that telemedicine was waiting for in India. The recent push will lead to widespread adoption of e-health services in the long run and Practo is well-positioned to stride to glory in this wave.
Practo’s trend analysis suggests that most current queries came from people in the age group of 20 to 30. Going forward, Practo should look for opportunities to market to a broader population especially women who often face additional barriers in accessing health care in India, such as being unable to visit healthcare professionals without a male companion. Also, it is important for Practo to do risk management to balance AI and doctor’s consultation in the platform as the tool advances with more data and training.