The responses have been given by Dr Karthik Anantharaman, Director e-Pharmacy at Medlife

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 Karthik Anantharaman, Director e-Pharmacy & Private Label Business, Medlife, 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 are the objectives and your vision to start this organization?

Dr Karthik Anantharaman, the director e-Pharmacy & Private Label Business shared with InnoHEALTH  that the company did begin as an e-health company, rather E pharmacy company, that was the first business that medlife set up. Later on, the company diversified into setting up labs as a business. And recently, they have set up the teleconsultation business as well. From a user journey perspective, it is going to be the same consumer or the patient who would avail medical consultation services through telemedicine. It’s the same patient who will be issued an e-prescription by the consulting doctor and the e-prescription primarily would have three things in it. 

  1. lifestyle modification, like a diet or an exercise for most of the chronic diseases, chronic therapies. 
  2. Medications 
  3. Lab investigations. 

Therefore, the company actually serves as a fulfilment partner of the medicines and for the lab test as well. So, broadly that is how the company became more of an integrated e-health service to the end consumer. He also shared that, they plan to come up with a unified storefront where when a consumer comes into the app, they will be able to add a medicine fulfilment, a lab fulfilment and a consultation request together into the same cart and then check out in a seamless manner. So therefore, a combination of all three verticals of service that Medlife offer can be potentially combined into one single integrated service.

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

Looking at the current situation, social distancing and hygiene is going to be like a norm for every place and I think healthcare sector is no different in that. That being said, I think what significantly going to change in the healthcare sector is the adoption of digitalization. Therefore, routine OPD, consultations, routine follow-up visits at doctors, etc are not going to happen as it was in the pre-COVID era. There is going to be a lot more emphasis on patients using teleconsultation service for routine follow-up consultations where they do not mandatorily have to visit a clinic or a hospital physically. Patient can always just dial them up, fix up an appointment, do a video consultation or a teleconsultation and be done with an e-prescription. Only for very critical illness, it will be mandated that the patient physically visits a hospital or the nursing home. So that where, I am sure, it is going to be a very good balanced mix of digitally enabled teleconsultation for regular cases and physical face to face consultation only when it is absolutely required for critical illness. So that’s going to be the different.

What tools and resources do you propose to bring this shift in healthcare delivery?

Anything that is telemedicine enabled, and at the same time, what would also become equally important and critical is EMR, electronic medical record. So, now there will be much better and structured EMR or electronic data upkeep that will happen which telemedicine will enable, because every patient naturally is uniquely identifiable and every doctor is uniquely identifiable as well as a part of the service. Therefore, a lot of companies will now basically kind of get into the mainstream market in terms of offering telemedicine as a licensed service. So that’s going to be quite interesting to see.

Can you share about your business model?

To this, Mr Kathik said, “It’s pretty simple, right? People who need pharmacy services order medicines from us, we deliver”. People who require lab tests, place an order online, the company delivers. And for the people who are looking for teleconsultation services, fix up teleconsultation requests, and then the company delivers on that as well. So that’s basically about it. People pay online through various types of payment gateways like credit card, debit card wallet, net banking, etc all are enabled. And that’s how they kind of build the service that they need.

What are the factors that made you influence the market innovations and its impact on your organization?

Following the market needs is more about following what are the therapeutic areas or what are the product lines which are making a significant difference in the market. For example, even during the lockdown period, the medicines that grew well were actually diabetic and cardiac medicines because people realize that if they don’t keep their sugar under control or their heart disease under control, their immunity is going to drop, and hence it could impact their health. So, that is where people realize that they need to be more compliant to their therapy, especially when it comes to chronic disease. It was seen that these therapies like cardiac, diabetes, grew upwards of 15 to 20% while many of them declined during the lockdown, mostly acute therapies. So yes, we follow market trends, we follow pharma-industry growth, and accordingly, all our communications, marketing, etc are aligned to it, said Mr. Karthik.

What are your strategies to deal with your competitor and what makes you different from others?

In the health sector there is enough market space that is still left unexplored. In the Indian pharma market, we are less than 2% of the Indian pharma market, so there’s a lot of room that’s available for every health sector to grow. Therefore, with that kind of a headroom, which is almost more than 98% of the market still available to adopt health, the adoption rate is going to be very quick. 

Adding to this, Mr Karthik said “I was reading one of the reports which says that e-commerce is going to be one of the industries that is going to recover the fastest in the post-COVID recovery phase. So, everything to do with digital is going to recover the fastest as well. That being said, I think what makes us different from others is that we become an integrated e-health portal, where it is a combination of pharmacy service, lab service and consultation service that can be availed from a single player. While many others could be offering just one individual service on their platform”.

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

Rural areas are definitely a yes for the company. Now that there is going to be a significant improvement with BSNL and internet service providers in the rural area and there is going to be good penetration of these services in the rural areas as well. So, with that happening, it is going to be like a good market to explore. Of course, the pricing will have to be a little different there, but broadly there is going to be a significant rural digital health upside.

What are the cyber securities issue organization like you faces? How do you deal with them?

According to Mr Karthik, mostly these questions are going to come from the doctors who are offering consultations and also the patients who are using telemedicine platforms to seek consultation because people certainly would want to keep their medical consultation and medical data private and that is of paramount importance. The steps are taken to ensure that the patients’ and doctors’ data are secure and reliable whether it’s through our compliance or through service providers. There must be a licensed approach for operating the software on which services are offered right to customers, so naturally the company which is offering the software as a service should be absolutely secure in terms of data. So, some of those things have become very relevant as we move forward.

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

To answer this, Mr Anantharaman said, most of the challenges have been quite operational. Definitely at a business level, the demand for most of the healthcare businesses have kind of gone up. But yes, broadly what is going to differentiate things going forward is that there is going to be increased adoption of e-commerce for availing quite a bit of almost every kind of healthcare service or healthcare products. What we need to get better at is a lot more on operational efficiency, turnaround, time-based efficiency that will kind of determine this whole thing and the expectation on discounting going forward. Some of these will be kind of impacted quite interestingly in the post-COVID phase.

What are your views about reimbursement in healthcare delivery model?

It’s going to be around OPD coverage and covering OPD cost will be quite critical. In addition to inpatient costs because now a lot more OPD work will happen.

What is the biggest setback that your organization has faced ever and what are your learnings from that?

There are many things for which we do not have any precedence to it. So the company  didn’t know how consumers would behave. They didn’t know what was going to be the approach. So therefore, broadly it  is going to be more of understanding about new consumer behaviour. “We also saw that; customers are now becoming very choosy in terms of how much they buy as well and the amount of money customers are willing to spend on various types of services including healthcare is going to change significantly”, said Mr Karthik. Also, because there are quite a few companies who are going through a job cut, pay cut, etc. so therefore, affordability will be significantly different than it was earlier. So yeah, many of those things that are anticipated, in terms of customers, trying to save more and spend less for getting more.

Could you share a bit more about the culture and values of your company and what is that and what is important to you and why?

In our organisation we follow an open culture, no idea is a bad idea and we try to experiment to get better every day. A collaborative approach is going to be so much more important than ever before. And I think as an organization, all our people have very well adapted to the new work from home culture and still be productive and still be collaborative with each other. So yeah, I think that’s something that we feel very happy about our culture, said Mr Karthik.

Could you tell me what major growth opportunities do you think in this post-COVID-19 world for your organization?

It is impacting chronic disease management, services delivery through a faster and more reliable teleconsultation service and e-lab service, is going to make a significant difference. Over a period of time, ICMR would also consider e-health partners, as a partner in COVID testing and define clear rules of how it can be enabled. Possibly some of those will be quite interesting and quite valuable for us to add to society.

Would you like to share any message with our leaders?

“These are interesting times and that being said this pandemic has redefined the way we live, you know across all facets of mankind. It has brought in heightened awareness about the hygiene practices of self and family as well and special care towards senior citizens and children would be required towards the maintenance of good health. So, that immunity is kept strong and strong immunity is naturally a good barrier to ward off any kind of infection”, said Mr Karthik. The heightened awareness about wellness and health itself, which takes precedence over any other thing. In simple words, health is wealth, is something that we knew for ages and this is indeed very true and there can’t be anything more important than that.

Interviewed by Disha Soni & Dr Prateek Malhotra

InnoHEALTH Magazine

Author InnoHEALTH Magazine

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