How healthcare apps have brought the gods to earth

  • Sunny Sen, Hindustan Times, NEW DELHI
  • Updated: May 02, 2016 18:42 IST
Using technology, healthcare companies are changing the doctor-patient equation. (Livemint)

Shashank ND speaks as if, deep in his heart, he wants to create the Philosopher’s Stone. The mythical stone, made famous by the first Harry Potter book, imbues its owner with immortality. Many medieval alchemists wasted their lives on creating it. Shashank would do it with technology.

For the moment, though, he is willing to settle for a little less. “It is not just a battle against death, it’s also about making people happier. This can be done only by making them live a longer and healthier life,” says the co-founder and CEO of Practo, a startup that connects users with doctors and hospitals, and also helps doctors manage their data and schedule.

If you have to undergo an operation to remove gall stones, Practo will guide you to the specialists, tell you how many such operations they have done, the patients on which they have operated, and the best hospitals for the procedure. Its platform allows you to have a preliminary chat with doctors and book appointments. It has tied up with Twitter, so users can tweet a question. It has partnered with Uber to ferry patients to doctors.

With this end-to-end coverage, Practo is the dominant player in the game of technology-driven healthcare. But it’s not the only one. Lybrate and BigChemist are carving out their own space. Together, these and others are using technology to change the doctor-patient equation.

Not too long ago, doctors, especially in small towns, were demigods. If you got to see one after hours — at times days – of waiting, you just took what he prescribed, and paid and thanked him for it. No questions asked, which anyway wouldn’t have been easy because only seasoned chemists could read what the doctor wrote.

Now the gods have come down to earth and into your cellphone and computer, not only giving you appointments, but also chatting with you and being patient with even the biggest hypochondriacs. It’s like how e-commerce outfits have brought the malls to you, except that doctors were always more distant and revered than malls.

Things were very different when Shashank, still at NIT Surathkul, thought of starting Practo during a summer vacation in Bangalore with Abhinav Lal, his friend from college. That was when Shashank’s father had to undergo a knee surgery.

Sharing and caring

The father’s surgery in 2007 made Shashank realise that he could alleviate the pain of patients by digitising medical records, so they could be shared easily with doctors and hospitals anywhere. He set up Practo Ray, which developed a clinic management software, hosted on the internet, for doctors.

Things changed when Sequoia Capital gave Practo close to half a million dollar as seed capital. Shashank took screenshots of his bank account and went to Coorg, a hill town in Karnataka, to celebrate. They played loud music and danced to Pitbull around a bonfire. Practo has since raised $123.5 million more, and has six other investors.

While Practo continues to build the connected ecosystem in healthcare, it aspires to make more sense of data. That’s not very different from Google’s Baseline Project, which collects data of body fluids such as blood, saliva, tears and urine, and tissue samples, and uses it to predict illness and cure.

“The biggest problem is information asymmetry. If a doctor or a patient has a query, they should be able to get it answered quickly,” says Shashank.

Facebook of health

“Liberate”, that’s what Saurabh Arora wanted to name his startup, which he started after leaving Facebook and returning to India. The domain name was already taken. So he settled for Lybrate.

His healthcare app, too, helps in connecting doctors to patients and book appointments. It is also a repository for healthcare content. But it also wants to be the Quora — a large community that allows users to ask any question, which are answered by other users — of healthcare.

On Lybrate, a patient can connect with a doctor through text, voice and video. Consultation fee averages Rs 200 to Rs 500. Arora has built many of Facebook’s features into Lybrate. It has Healthfeed, like Facebook’s Newsfeed, where doctors post comments. Instead of “liking” a post, you can click on a “thanks” button. Instead of posting a comment, you can consult. You can also “share”, just as on Facebook.

Arora used Facebook to scale his business from zero users to a million without advertising. That’s where he got his first thousand doctors. One doctor recommended another, and so on. Eighty-nine thousand more have come on the app.

Lybrate wants to be in everything to do with communication in healthcare. “Searching the right doctor, getting appointments with doctors, clinics and hospitals, showing test results… you can upload that on the app… and also getting follow-up appointments…,” says Arora.

BigChemist, too, allows remote consultation, but with a mission. It wants not just to tell patients where to go but also reduce costs for them — be it the doctor’s fee or the price of medicine. “We want to make sure the bills are lower,” says Puneet Kapoor, director, BigChemist, which aims to deliver medicines within four hours.

BigChemist collects data based on usage, procures medicines in large amounts at a cheaper price, and offers them to patients at a discount. It also advises patients on what to eat, and tells them when to go for tests.

In the past couple of years, investors have started betting on healthcare, pouring $64 million into it in the January-March period this year. As is true of most startups, the ones in healthcare are far from profitability.

“We will break even next year… We are able to generate a lot of revenue, because we generate a lot of value,” says Shashank.

Forget money for a moment. Practo generates 10 million queries from patients every month. Even if half of them get helpful answers, that’s a lot of value.

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