The responses have been given by Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, Chief Health Strategy Officer, Practo

All around the world, people are facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As InnovatioCuris (IC), we are always on a lookout for healthcare innovations that are affordable and provide quality care. Most governments across the world have lifted restrictions or limitations imposed on telemedicine to provide home-staying patients with remote access to healthcare. The US, for example, allowed Medicare payments for virtual visits, while India’s Ministry of Health issued new guidelines permitting registered medical practitioners to use telemedicine services. In the wake of this, InnoHEALTH magazine scouted and interviewed some innovative telemedicine providers/startups to build an army of health transformers to mobilize and address this global health crisis.

Disha Soni and Prateek Malhotra interviewed Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, Chief Health Strategy Officer, Practo, on behalf of InnoHEALTH magazine to bring out some virtually perfect telemedicine solutions available during the Covid-19 crisis, also to understand challenges and opportunities posed by such a situation and how our startup ecosystem is tackling it.

What do you think needs to change in the health sector?

India has some of the best medical experts and institutions in the country. Indian doctors and scientists are considered among the best in the world and India has emerged as one of the finest medical tourism destinations in the world. 

According to a McKinsey report, India could save up to $10 billion in 2025, if telemedicine replaced 30% to 40% of in-person outpatient consultations and there is digitization in the overall healthcare industry. Much of the current focus in healthcare is on the near-term challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. However beyond the current crisis, healthcare technology veterans are already seeing major changes that promise to become permanent realities — from the sudden boom in telemedicine, to regulatory shifts impacting healthcare billing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the need for a strong technological ecosystem within healthcare not only in India but across the globe. In the wake of pandemic, technology which was only being used in the back-end is now at the forefront of this health crisis through tools like telemedicine. This has encouraged countries to implement long-term telehealth tools and enhance interoperability of electronic medical records. 

What tools and resources do you propose to bring these shifts in healthcare delivery?

Technology is and will continue to be the catalyst for a thriving future of India. Not too long ago, healthcare for Indians was limited to their friends/ families’ recommendations being inconvenient with ‘wait time’ at clinics as high as three hours. Today, you can get in touch with a doctor in less than 60 seconds and meet with a doctor in as less as 15 minutes. There is less friction and more empowerment.

Uberisation in Healthcare has been long coming and there’s no way you can build ‘Health for All’ without integrating online and offline channels. Online and offline will continue to co-exist. Online healthcare increases access and efficiency for patients, while they would continue seeing their doctors physically for serious illnesses, conveniently with the help of technological solutions. 

Share with us about your technology that powers this company?

Dr Alexander Kuruvilla shared that at practo, every single solution that they have built and will continue to build will have the doctor-patient interaction at its core. They wanted to ensure patients and doctors can connect at any time, communicate asynchronously or synchronously depending on their needs. They also wanted to ensure the experience is fast and seamless, so both patients and doctors can focus on health rather than technology. 

They have built a smart matching algorithm that connects a patient to qualified and registered doctors, depending on the patient’s health problem, the doctor’s area of speciality and his availability. Once an identification of a pool of available doctors is done, they reach out to them in real-time to accept a new consultation. This unique approach allows them to connect a patient with a doctor 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

What are the factors that influence market innovation and its impact on your organization?

There are few factors that have been observed in the society which are bound to make an impact on the market innovation and so on the organization:

  • Patients are becoming aware and engaged and are increasingly able and willing to take greater control of their health. Hence it is important to ensure they are armed with the right tools and technology
  • Uberisation of healthcare has been long coming and consumers expect the same level of service from healthcare services, as they do from players in other industries regarding Personalised care, Real time service and responsiveness and a fuller, integrated engagement and experience
  • With the ongoing global pandemic, the insights have shown that India is embracing telemedicine like never before. The econsult platform of Practo has seen a 500% growth since the lockdown, reiterating the fact that people are using telemedicine as the first line of defense, instead of crowding hospitals during the COVID-19 outbreak. Furthermore, this also means that telemedicine has enabled access to healthcare to the remotest locations of India. This trend is likely to stay and we are expecting that people will continue to embrace telemedicine for their regular healthcare needs, anytime, anywhere

 

Do you consider bringing telemedicine in rural areas and what are your initiatives towards that?

India’s doctor to patient ratio stands at 1:1700, while WHO recommends 1:1000. There are approximately 1.1 beds per 1,000 persons, compared to the world average of 2.7. Our country has a wealth of medical expertise, yet it is also one of the largest countries in the world in terms of both area and population.  Public hospitals are typically overcrowded, while private care stays out of reach for many. In about 6 lakh villages, where 69 percent of India’s population lives, the number of doctors is only a fourth of those in urban areas. Approximately 12 percent of patients go without access to primary health care every day.

Dr Alexander said they are bridging the gaps in both urban and rural parts of the country through their telemedicine services. Telemedicine is a tool that allows a patient to consult a respective Medical Council verified doctor, 24*7, from anywhere in the country. If one has a smartphone, he/she can consult a doctor, irrespective of their location. So definitely, telemedicine allows people to instantly consult a verified doctor instead of either delaying or self-medicating and do all that affordably. Moreover, location is no longer a constraint –  a person in Arunachal Pradesh can consult a specialist in Delhi, without having to move / travel the distance.

India’s digital connectivity is expected to reach 80% access in 2034, with rural Internet users increasing by 58% annually. With smartphone and internet penetration growing, rural India is getting tech savvy with every 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. Anyone with a smartphone will have 24*7 access to verified doctors no matter which part of the country they are in. This trend can drive the adoption of telemedicine and other digital technologies, thereby increasing access to healthcare for people in rural areas.

What were the challenges you faced in initial days and how are they different in today’s scenario, especially during this pandemic and what is your role in that?

One of the core challenges that the organisation has faced is technology adoption in healthcare. Healthcare has always worked in a traditional way and has been one of the few last industries to see digital transformation, and that has been a big challenge. The focus has always been on solving the consumer problem and simplifying the technology so that it becomes very easy to ensure the transition from technology not being a major factor in a particular industry to becoming the driver of the next set of growth and improvements. And, this thought about technology has helped us in managing some of the challenges that we have faced.

There is greater acceptance and attention for digital health solutions during the coronavirus crisis and believe that the trend will continue even after the pandemic. Doctors have never been more supportive of digital technology than now, and patients are slowly getting used to telemedicine as an option of accessing healthcare.

Do you see any major growth opportunity in the post covid-19 world

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone the spotlight on the need for a strong technological ecosystem within healthcare not only in India but across the globe. In the wake of the pandemic, technology which was only being used in the back-end is now at the forefront of this health crisis through tools like telemedicine. This has encouraged countries to implement long-term telehealth tools and enhance the interoperability of electronic medical records. 

There is greater acceptance and attention for digital health solutions during the coronavirus crisis and we believe that the trend will continue even after the pandemic.

Much of the current focus in healthcare is on the near-term challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. If we all succeed in sustaining the current high level of acceptance and simplified regulatory framework into increased long-term use for digital healthcare, especially telemedicine, the coronavirus pandemic will in retrospect be remembered as the breakthrough point of the digital health industry in India.  

What is the biggest setback your organization has faced and what are your learning’s from that?

Healthcare is not an immediate impact domain; it takes time and patience to create real impact. Dr Alexander said that they have been at it for 12 years, and will continue to do so. There are no challenges or setbacks as such, roadblocks maybe, which we strive to solve by working with the authorities and ecosystem partners, so maximum value and impact can be generated.

Share a bit more about the culture and values of your company? What is important to you and why?

To this, Dr Alexander said “We are passionate dreamers, thinkers and do-ers rolled into one for one purpose. Our three principles help us keep moving towards our mission with a zeal to excel are Inspire Trust,Growth is Oxygen, and Think first Principles.”

These are not just principles for the, their products, or their company, but a reflection of who they are as Practeons. Their work impacts millions of people around the world. Do Great is the company’s motto and is the hallmark of a true Practeon. This means Practeons do their best work, not for the want of rewards or recognition, but because it is the right thing to do, to take them closer to their vision.

What are your Future plans and any message for our readers?

The vision has always been to simplify healthcare by making quality healthcare more accessible, affordable and convenient. In such a time of crisis, solving for access is what all are working towards, so patients can continue consulting their doctors. A lot of groups are all finding ways to support the authorities and caregivers to ensure patients have access to care, when and where they need it, and Practo is doing exactly the same.

 Dr Alexander also shared that, over the last few days, they’ve received requests from a large number of hospitals and clinics to make the online consultation services live for them. They’re also reaching out to a lot of establishments, so they can continue consulting their patients online. During such times when stepping out is advisable only in times of emergency, teleconsult plays an important role. All are working hard towards ensuring there’s uninterrupted access to care, and that patients can continue consulting their doctors, virtually.

Interviewed by Disha Soni & Dr Prateek Malhotra

InnoHEALTH magazine digital team

Author InnoHEALTH magazine digital team

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