Coronavirus: Watershed Moment For Digital Healthcare Or Temporary Gain?
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As an extended lockdown due to the Coronavirus outbreak keeps people from resuming regular activity, and the country’s healthcare system faces an unprecedented crisis, digital healthcare is fast becoming an option for many.
“We have observed 30 per cent weekly growth in the number of online consultations which also includes people having other ailments and wanting to consult a doctor but have been advised to avoid hospitals,” says Prasad Kompalli, co-founder and chief executive officer at online consultation platform MFine.
This trend has been seen across companies in the space. Practo, which claims it has witnessed an average increase of over 100 per cent week-over-week, said more than 50 per cent of all the general practitioner e-consultations have been related to Coronavirus.
Some others like care.fit and Tattvan, have seen takers for their offerings as well. While Tattvan said it had seen a surge of over 70 per cent in patient queries for consultation, care.fit, which launched its telemedicine solution pan-India a few weeks back, said there had been a strong uptake in all of the digital health services, with double-digit daily growth across doctor consultation, mental health therapy and online nutrition.
An interesting finding from across the board was that this switch to digital consultations has not been limited to the big cities alone.
According to Alexander Kuruvilla, chief healthcare strategy officer at Practo, close to 40 per cent of all teleconsultations on the platform are happening from tier-II and tier-III cities. myUpchar, a platform that primarily focuses on those in these smaller cities and towns, said it had seen a 3x jump in the consultation volume since the pandemic began.
The surge, however, is not limited to general teleconsultations. Pristyn Care, which operates a platform for elective surgeries, said it has seen a 10x increase in queries per day and that the queries had increased by 7x across tier-II cities alone.
Several of these platforms have taken new initiatives to cash in on the sudden surge in interest. MFine has launched a preliminary assessment tool for Coronavirus, and on the onboarding front, in the last month, it has partnered with over 50 hospitals, bringing their doctors to its platform.
In March, Practo launched a new monthly subscription-based healthcare plan priced at INR 399, that provides unlimited online consultations with doctors from over 20 specialities. “This extremely cost-effective plan has been conceived with an aim at making quality healthcare affordable and accessible to all, specifically during the time of this global crisis,” says Kuruvilla.
There are also those who have tweaked and modified their models to help during the crisis.
Tattvan founder Ayush Mishra said that the company has offered its teleconsultation platform to private practitioners and cut down on the service fee while myUpchar co-founder and CEO Rajat Garg said they had started a hospital supplies section to fulfil demand related to personal protective equipment kits, masks and other essentials.
Preventive healthcare platform FindMyHealth, except for launching a Coronavirus risk calculator, has also come up with an immunity score calculator and an immunity booster supplement. It says the supplement is made out of eleven herbs and helps protect against infections while also improving respiratory health.
“This combination is approved by the FDA and we are launching it for ordering online,” says FindMyHealth founder Gaurav Bhalotia.
While the broader observation has been around people going online to consult for physical ailments, queries related to mental health have increased significantly as well during the lockdown.
“There has been a 5x increase in the number of people speaking to our therapists via video calls,” says Madan Somasundaram, head of care.fit, adding that they had seen a significant increase in cases related to specific mental health issues such as increased anxiety, sleep-related issues and restlessness.
While MFine said it had helped with close to 3,000 mental health-related consultations in the first four weeks of lockdown, Practo said online queries for psychiatry on its platform had grown 50 per cent in the second and third week of April.
For Practo, most of the queries related to mental health have been from major cities such as Delhi-NCR, Bengaluru and Mumbai. And while most queries were coming from people in the age group of 21-30, there has been a significant increase in the number of consultations coming from people aged 60 and above as well, says Kuruvilla.
“We expect this number to increase due to exacerbation of existing mental health struggles like depression and other mood disorders or relationship difficulties or conflict and an increase in health-related anxiety if COVID-19 cases continue to rise,” adds Somasundaram.
Interestingly, myUpchar said it hadn’t seen any such spike for mental health ailments.
But all said and done, how much of this sudden surge in interest is likely to stay? “Telemedicine is playing a frontline role in the outbreak; if it can have such a far reaching impact during such a crisis, then it’s worth exploring what it could do in day-to-day delivery of healthcare when life goes back to normal,” says Kuruvilla.
According to him, the three key issues facing healthcare today are access, quality and affordability, all of which can be solved with the usage of technology.
MFine’s Kompalli agrees. “All barriers are now overcome and people really understand how easy, how convenient and accessible healthcare becomes. That positive experience makes consumers stick to telemedicine and even in the future, most will try online consultation first before visiting a hospital,” he says.
Pristyn Care’s co-founder Harsimarbir Singh, while agreeing that there would be a definite shift in normal consumer behaviour even after the lockdown is over, believes physical consultations will remain core to treatment for a lot of diseases in the short term.
“They can be augmented by tele-consultations in the initial phase when a patient has just started seeking treatment or in the follow-up phase, but in the actual treatment phase, physical examination in outpatient departments is going to remain the norm,” says Singh.