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Health tech startups lend a helping hand to India’s strained healthcare system

Written by Moulishree Srivastava Published on     7 mins read

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Health tech startups have started offering at-home service for COVID-19 patients who can manage their condition from home.

Last month, when Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Mudit Dandwate learned that his parents, who live over 1,000 kilometers away from him in Nagpur, had tested positive for COVID-19, he swung into action by setting up remote monitoring rooms for them. And he did it even without breaking a sweat.

Dandwate is the founder of six-year-old health tech startup Dozee, which does exactly what he needed. It helps convert regular beds into a step-down version of ICU beds with its sensing device that is placed below the bedsheet. This device monitors heart rate, respiration rate, oxygen saturation, and blood pressure, among other things, and sends continuous data streams to Dozee’s mobile app. In case of any abnormality in vitals, it raises an alarm so that patients can get the required medical attention.

With the help of the device that he and his co-founder Gaurav Parchani spent four years creating, Dandwate was able to keep a check on his parents’ health while he flew back to his hometown.

“It helped me personally as well as many of Dozee employees at a time when there was a severe shortage of beds all across [the country],” Dandwate, CEO and co-founder of Dozee, told KrASIA. “For instance, in Bengaluru, it took at least 48 hours to find one bed for coronavirus patients. We had anticipated this in mid-March [when the COVID-19 cases started mounting]. We are lucky that we kept some devices for our team and got two doctors on board full time.”

Dozee, which first rolled out its product commercially in 2019, primarily works with hospitals, offering them remote patient monitoring solutions as well as a centralized online repository to keep track of patients’ vitals. In addition, it also allows patients to book online doctor consultations through its partner hospitals.

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Also read: India’s health tech startup BeatO enters Singapore

Later in April, Dandwate launched a home monitoring service for mild and asymptomatic COVID-19 patients, after the global healthcare crisis reached his home. Dozee started offering a 30-day rental service for its device so that customers don’t have to buy it. This move added a new revenue stream for the company as well.

“Our home monitoring system can decrease the load on the public healthcare system as most of the COVID-19 cases can be managed at home,” he said. “It gives insights from the data it collects continuously so that people can consult doctors, whenever necessary.”

Dandwate said Dozee has also put together round-the-clock, remote patient monitoring cells for coronavirus cases in hospitals across 20 cities, including his hometown. So far, Dozee has set up 10,000 beds specifically for COVID-19 patients. Since late last year, it has increased its partnership with hospitals from 40 to 182 currently. Moreover, it recently began offering its services to corporates that want to offer medical help to their employees.

All these endeavors have resulted in a 6x jump in its revenue in April over last year, and Dandwate has set an audacious goal of installing 50,000 step-down ICU beds across India in the next six months and take it to one million in the next three years. By the end of this year, it plans to double its reach to 40 cities.

At a time when the country is seeing a rapid rise in the number of new infections every day, multiple health tech startups like Dozee, are looking beyond offering medicine delivery services and online doctor consultations. In a way, they have stepped up to fill the gap that is left behind by the bigger internet healthcare service providers which primarily focus on telemedicine, e-pharmacy, and lab test booking.

At the forefront

The healthcare system of the world’s second-most populous country was brought to its knees when the reported daily infections of COVID-19 surpassed the 400,000-mark in May. With the monumental rise in new cases, India has been going through a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and life-saving drugs like Remdesivir and Fabiflu. This has led to people rushing to online doctor consultation platforms and pharmacy apps to buy medical devices, personal protective equipment, health supplements, and medicines.

“The shortage of medical infrastructure in India is being filled—for the time being (and potentially for the foreseeable future)—by tech companies providing everything from medicines & lifesaving equipment, to consultations with doctors,” a research firm Kalagato noted in a blog, earlier this month.

India has a vibrant and emerging online healthcare market with well-established players like 1mg, Practo, Netmeds, Medlife, MedPlus, and PharmEasy, among others. Over the past year, as the pandemic put these digital healthcare startups in the spotlight, Indian corporations like Reliance and Tata have made their moves to tap the soon-to-be USD 10.5 billion e-healthcare market. While Reliance acquired Netmeds, Tata reportedly signed an agreement to buy a 65% stake in 1mg to strengthen its online doctor consultation platform, Tata Health, which currently operates in partnership with 1mg and PharmEasy for online medicine ordering.

Kalagato said, the usage of pharmacy apps in India has nearly doubled, and tripled in April.

The health monitoring device by Dozee can keep a check of patients vitals. Picture courtesy: Dozee

Among all the online healthcare startups, the research firm added, 13-year old Practo saw its daily active users triple last month, while the amount spent on the platform also doubled. Practo facilitates online doctor consultation, home delivery of medicines and health equipment, and schedule laboratory tests.

According to Dr. Alexander Kuruvilla, chief healthcare strategy officer at Practo, the company witnessed a 6x growth in the number of teleconsultations after the second wave of coronavirus hit the country.

“Last year, the number of users coming to our platform grew three times after the lockdown was imposed, and 80% of them were first-time users,” he told KrASIA. “We thought it was high growth until we saw the second wave, during which we grew much faster, over a shorter period of time.”

“Our pharmacy and diagnostics services also grew but not as much as teleconsultations,” he said.

A report by a local media Economic Times said sales for online pharmacies surged by 25–65% in the country in April, which is when various state governments started imposing curfews and lockdowns to curb the spike in new cases.

However, many of the bigger pharmacy and consultation apps were running at their limit, catering to the demand from severely affected cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, as well as other tier-1 cities, where they have a better and stronger partner ecosystem of doctors, labs, and drug stores.

For instance, in the second half of April, when the country was reporting over 300,000 daily infections, Practo and 1mg often showed ‘no doctors available’ as they struggled to meet the surge in demand. At the time, in many lower-tier cities, several healthcare apps either didn’t have diagnostic partners or were unable to deliver medicines at a few locations.

“The challenge was to have enough qualified medical professionals to respond to the demand since we have a detailed onboarding process to maintain the quality,” Kuruvilla said.

He added, the company brought on board the hospitals that had the capabilities of doing online consultation, which took the number of doctors for teleconsultation on its platform to 25,000. He did not reveal the number of doctors on Practo prior to the second wave. Kuruvilla further noted that Practo is in process of tying up with 1,000 corporates to facilitate 10 million vaccine shots.

Most of the major digital healthcare players have now ramped up their presence beyond metropolitan areas to serve customers in lower-tier cities. Practo, for example, rolled out its consultations service in 15 local languages last month and had 25% of its users availing it. The company is also seeing a surge in users from tier-2 and tier-3 cities like Lucknow and Bhubaneswar.

Beyond online pharmacy and consultation

Similar to Dozee, Bengaluru-based MFine is sharpening its focus on home care facilities for COVID-19 patients. It currently provides online consultation, diagnostics, and pharmacy services in partnership with hospitals and medical stores.

The company claimed, it has added over 700 doctors to its network last month to manage the demand, taking the total number of medical practitioners on its platform to 4,000.

Prasad Kompalli, co-founder of MFine, told KrASIA, that due to the nationwide lockdown the infection rate was much lower last year, giving hospitals enough time to prepare themselves.

“But this year, the sudden spike in new infections hit the country before anyone could react, straining the country’s healthcare infrastructure. We have been ramping up our services while working on self-checking and monitoring tools,” Kompalli said.

Over the past one and a half months, MFine has upgraded its app to make it a self-monitoring platform for COVID-19 patients. Aside from offering self-check tests for COVID-19 assessment and heart health, among other chronic conditions, the startup has recently launched MFine Pulse, an app-based monitoring tool to track oxygen saturation levels using a smartphone camera.

“We are looking to convert smartphones into self-monitoring and management devices to measure vitals and oxygen saturation levels,” said Kompalli. “These tools will help mild to moderate coronavirus patients recover at home.”

Also read: Startups roll out measures to assist employees amid the second wave of COVID-19 in India

MFine has also rolled out a subscription package for a family of four people, who are recovering from COVID-19 to monitor their condition at home and reach out to a doctor if required. The three-and-a-half-year-old startup saw its online consultations quadruple and the demand for medicine deliveries triple in April. In comparison, it recorded a growth of 15% month-on-month last year.

Shyatto Raha, founder and CEO, MyHealthcare, told KrASIA, this is a good time for private health tech companies to innovate and learn how to destress hospitals that are already overburdened. “We have the opportunity to take hospitals to people’s homes,” Raha said.

MyHealthcare works with 57 hospitals and over 30 clinics and claims to cater to over 20 million patients who use the platform for virtual doctor consultations, booking lab tests, and e-pharmacy. Seeing the current situation, it now provides home care and home isolation packages for coronavirus patients. The staff of the hospitals, MyHealthcare has partnered with, remotely monitor these patients at home, and in case of emergency, doctors reach out to patients over a video call.

“We are also introducing AI-based EMR (electronic medical record), enabling doctors to do an accurate diagnosis in 30 seconds to one minute.”

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