The spread of coronavirus was earlier dominated by urban centres in India, but things look different now – the rural hinterlands are no longer spared from its clutches. The mass exodus of migrant workers from big cities and industrial hubs has led to a spike in cases.
In a report to the Union Health Ministry, the government’s Rapid Response Team (RRT) on Covid suggested that local health authorities focus on rural areas, after an estimated 20-25 million migrants began making their way to villages in trains, buses and on foot.
70 percent of India’s population – some 892 million people – lives in rural areas with no or limited access to hospitals or clinicians. This means that rural pockets being viral flashpoints is even more devastating, given the inadequate infrastructure.
The only way to bridge the urban-rural gap in healthcare is by leveraging technology to provide services in a quick and efficient manner, and that’s exactly why there is a new breed of health tech startups that have sprouted in different parts of the country.
These startups are looking to tap into the under-served rural market by improving the quality of healthcare and enhancing access to proficient doctors. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, they have stepped up their game to ease issues faced by the public.
This health tech startup in Kota was founded by Shreyans Mehta, Nikhil Baheti and Saida Dhanavath, in 2017, to bridge the gap in healthcare between urban and rural India. Through their platform, Aayu and Sehat Sathi, thousands of patients in India can reach out to qualified doctors and also order essential medicines, without worrying about the geographical limitations.
Using Aayu, customers can consult qualified health practitioners on the app, and in case they don’t have a smartphone, they can reach out to them on-call. What’s more, the app also has a coronavirus guide integrated into its platform that helps users clear myths and understand the symptoms.
The Sehat Sathi App also connects patients with available medical stores in rural areas. Through the app, chemists can chat with their customers, understand their requirements and dispatch the medicines accordingly.
They also have a 24×7 support team, which helps users to resolve their issues, even at odd hours.
“The COVID-19 crisis is indeed a tough time for the country. Our integrated solution through our two apps – Aayu & Sehat Sathi, is our endeavour to bring an effective healthcare ecosystem for all citizens of India on their fingertips” shared Shreyans Mehta, Co-founder and CEO of MedCords, with The Blue Circle.
During this crisis, MedCords has gone a step further to provide free consultation to all its first-time users. Currently, it caters to over 20 lakh users, spread across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. The startup focuses on Tier-III cities and rural areas, with a population under three lakh.
The Rajasthan government has exclusively partnered with MedCord’s Aayu and Sehat Sathi apps to help over 500,000 people in the state, to consult doctors online for free and place orders for their medicine requirements. They also did a campaign to make every medical store digital, so that a user can easily share their prescription with their nearest store.
“Logistics has been a huge issue, which is why it is the nearest medical store that can instantly deliver medicines. During this pandemic, we realised it is important to provide opportunities to local people, because when there is an emergency, especially in case of health, they say apne log hi kaam aate hai (only your closest people help you), so we adopted that philosophy and connected our medical stores, patients and doctors so that whether it’s Covid or any other issue, they get consultation and medicines without any difficulty,” added Shreyans.
Founded in 2016 by Ajoy Khandheria, Gurugram-based Gramin Healthcare works exclusively towards bringing affordable primary healthcare services and access to specialist care in rural India.
In an interview to Financial Express, Ajoy had earlier shared, “Our business model is such that GHC, with the help of IFFCO, is creating primary healthcare centres through which services can be rendered to the rural population. The services are availed by rural people using our health card.”
When he started out, Ajoy realised that there were a slew of challenges, including understanding consumer behaviour that differed from village to village. That’s not all – trust was another huge issue, especially when it came to the healthcare sector.
With an initial investment of Rs 1.5 crore from his personal savings, he embarked on this fulfilling journey to solve this problem through his model that combines both online and offline channels. Assisted telemedicine is deployed at their brick and mortar healthcare centres, thereby bridging the rural-urban divide in terms of medical facilities, and extending low-cost consultation and diagnosis facilities to the remotest of areas.
Currently, the startup is running a campaign called #GraminfightsCorona to educate and spread awareness about coronavirus through phone calls and SMS’s amongst villagers and farmers living in rural India, who do not have access to social media. As of now, more than 2 crore people have been a part of this campaign.
Delhi-based health tech startup, myUpchar was founded in 2016 by Stanford University alumni and friends Rajat Garg and Manuj Garg, who wanted to solve the lack of access to quality healthcare and provide medical information in Tier-II and Tier-III areas of India.
“We create high-quality health content in different Indian languages. The content is all written by top doctors like Dr. Naresh Trehan and Dr. Parikh from Medanta, some from Fortis and Max. It is in text, video, 3D animation, and even in videos, we record C-sections in an operation theatre, liver and heart transplants. That leads to tons of consultation requests on our platform and we provide it all for free. We have 5,000 active doctors that users can connect with. 50,000 doctors are associated with us in all,” shared Rajat Garg, Co-founder, myUpchar.com, with TBC.
On their website and app, they get 20 million visitors a month. Apart from that, they have another video channel, where they get another 130 million views every month across social platforms. All this leads to roughly 3 lakh consultations per month, according to Rajat.
Besides, they have strengthened their medicine delivery vertical to help people; in fact, as an essential service, it was even operational during the lockdown.
For Covid, the company has created specific content, and over three months, it has been viewed 50 million times. The content is available in six languages – Hindi, English, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu. Users can also key in their symptoms to check if they have Covid or not, and if they do, they are connected to the extensive database of doctors.
“In April, we saw a jump of 3x, in terms of consultation projects. Now, that number has gone down to similar levels pre-March, since clinics have opened up. We monetise by selling medicines and lab tests, we give little discount there, because we give free consultations. Since the customers are happy with the consultation, they tend to buy from us versus other platforms. We have also partnered with chemists in remote areas, so that if they have an acute issue and they need a medicine within a short time, they can go to the partner chemist, and if they don’t have it, they can get it from us,” added Rajat.
It has also tied up with a licensed manufacturer to make PPE equipment available to medical staff across the country. The startup is also making infrared thermometers, N-95 respirator masks, and hospital-grade hand sanitiser (alcohol rub) available through its e-commerce platform.
Founded in 2010 by Chandrashekhar K, Forus Health is using technology to fight the skewed ophthalmologist-to-patient ratio in India, and eradicate preventable blindness.
With its portable innovative product 3nethra, screening of common eye problems which can lead to blindness is just a few minutes affair. With over 1,300 installations across 26 countries, the Bengaluru-based startup has impacted over two million lives in a positive way. Their newest product aims at detecting Retinopathy of Prematurity, a disease that leads to blindness among premature babies, due to excess of oxygen or the effect of drugs used to save them.
“Initially, we started with devices, because they were very expensive, and they were not meant for preventive care (since they were into dilating). We made devices that are very rugged, which can be moved from one place to another, and can be used by minimally trained technicians in rural pockets or otherwise,” shared Chandrashekhar K, Founder and CEO, Forus Health, with TBC.
Two years back, when they had reached 2,400 consultations in 36 countries, covering about 6 million people, out of which almost 40% were from rural areas, they realised that if they had to make a larger impact, it was critical to make a foray into public health.
“When you are in public health, you need to sell a solution not a device. When we have to sell a solution, it will have many things like a device, platform, and connectivity to the hospital, spectacle dispensing and other things. So, we built all of that. We made a model, where screening could be done even in non-ophthalmology places, whereas the diagnosis can be done in ophthalmology places, and then we developed and collaborated with large AI companies, so that automated grading can happen,” shared Chandrashekhar, adding that this initiative is not driven but accelerated due to Covid-19.”
The objective of the startup is to connect patients and ophthalmologists, and currently through teleconsulting – audio and visual mediums, they have stepped up their efforts during Covid-19.
“Unlike other general physicians, an ophthalmologist can’t make a diagnosis if he does not have a patient record or patient data. For follow-ups, we collaborated with a company to help doctors manage those kinds of patients. For first-time customers, we intend to put devices in nearby locations, which could be at a GP or diagnostic centre, so that they can take the image and send it to the ophthalmologist. And he needs to visit the ophthalmologist only when there is a threatening issue, else distance is maintained. So, he gets service within the comfort of his home and we ensure patients can be treated, before they go blind. If there’s something serious, they can make a physical visit to the opthalmologist. We were planning to launch this digital model earlier, about 3-4 months ago, primarily for the management of disease, but due to Covid, this initiative was accelerated,” he shared.
Chandrashekhar also feels that the pandemic has brought about behavioural changes in both patients and doctors, since most of them were earlier not receptive to digital heath care models.
“At least, 30-40% will continue this behaviour even post-Covid. From an ophthalmologist point of view , he is getting the income he was getting earlier. From the patient standpoint, he doesn’t have to go physically, he knows that he is safe,” he said.
These startups are nimble, agile and innovative, and have accelerated their efforts to ensure patients in rural pockets and otherwise, get the right attention in these times of crisis. While this may be a temporary eventuality, it might lead to a permanent change in consumer behaviour, and might help them warm up to digital healthcare.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)
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