Telemedicine start-ups up the ante to address coronavirus concerns

Annapurani V Chennai | Updated on March 31, 2020

From partnering with hospitals to getting more doctors on board, the firms are helping healthcare givers as much as patients

With rising panic over the pandemic, people are taking a keener look at their coughs and colds and what could be other coronavirus symptoms, and want to know how they can ward off an infection.

But, the restrictions on commute and increasing spread of infections, asymptomatic and otherwise, leave them not too keen to step out of their homes. It also does not help that the outpatient departments (OPDs) in hospitals are now barely functional. With so few testing kits at their disposal and just about 61 hospital beds per lakh people (as per data from Gram, a public data repository) available in India, there is bound to be a surge in demand for alternatives that the public can resort to, for information and initial screening.

Enter telemedicine and online healthcare consultation platforms. With over 502 million smartphone users and about 643 million mobile broadband subscribers in the country, virtual medical consultation — which allows the public access to doctors without the need to step out — is probably the easiest way to resolve the issue at hand.

Soaring consults

“It helps hospitals safeguard doctors and staff who are among the most at risk of contracting the virus. It also helps patients to avoid crowded waiting rooms and potential infection,” said Prasad Kompalli, co-founder and CEO of mfine, an AI-powered online doctor consultation platform.

“The overall teleconsultations are growing every week by 30 per cent as many people want to talk to doctors but don’t want to go to the hospital, fearing infection. The same sense of urgency to move to telemedicine is shown by doctors and hospitals at this time as they want to continue with care delivery and prefer telemedicine to physical visits,” he added.

“Considering the increased awareness about the coronavirus, apart from the regular queries we get, people are also calling with symptoms such as cough or mild fever or nasal congestion, and are quite concerned and anxious,” said Suraj Baliga, co-founder of Bengaluru-based start-up Clinikk Healthcare.

How they function

Telemedicine platforms are similar to consulting a doctor in person. While some platforms provide in-detail consultations, others offer information and query resolutions alone. For a consultation, patients register themselves on the platform, enter the relevant information and select the required specialty. He/she is then put in touch with a doctor, via a video/audio/text chat per preference, and the consultation is then completed with a digital prescription from the doctor. Patients are then, if required, advised to visit a hospital nearby to get the necessary tests done.

To provide a framework to deliver healthcare services remotely, online or via phone, the government released a set of guidelines last week, which focusses on important telemedicine practices, data privacy and confidentiality of patients and documentation of consultation.

Coping with the surge

With the number of infections in India climbing to over 1,000 and with nearly 29 deaths, the sense of urgency to get their queries on the virus resolved and get tested has increased among the public. Case in point, the surge in teleconsults on these platforms over the past couple of weeks.

mfine for instance, saw a 30-35 per cent week-on-week rise in telephonic and online consults, of which nearly 50 per cent were related to general physician queries and were largely based around the coronavirus. Practo, another online healthcare platform, saw teleconsults increase 100 per cent week-on-week, and queries regarding fever, cough, cold, sore throat and body ache surged 200 per cent. Clinikk Healthcare also saw a 30-40 per cent increase in queries over the past couple of weeks.

So how are these platforms coping with the sudden rise in load?

“We are trying to stay ahead of the curve by getting as many doctors on board as possible,” said Alexander Kuruvilla, Chief Healthcare Strategy Officer, Practo. “They can sit at home today without getting exposed to the patients and take these consults.”

Virus concerns

The coronavirus consults are like any GP (general practitioner) consults, taking three-five minutes each, Kuruvilla said. Practo has put a convention in place for coronavirus consults, which helps make them crisp, quick and more effective, and also helps short-list people who need the next level of tests.

Clinikk Healthcare has opened up its teleconsultation lines for free to help more people access information on the pandemic. Portea Medical, a company that provides in-home medical care, also recently launched a chatbot to address queries related to Covid-19.

“We have partnered with a number of hospitals such as RxDx Bangalore, Sunshine and KIMS Hyderabad to maximise outreach,” said Kompalli of mfine. “We have also partnered with a number of corporates such as Ola, MyGate, GoAir and Amazon to ensure most people can access a doctor on their mobile phones.” The platform also has a customised workflow to quickly assess patients with flu-like symptoms for Covid-19 infection.

Published on March 30, 2020

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