For health tech startups in the country, COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented demand with requests for all-time services -- from teleconsultation to testing and home care. But as they try to take the load off the healthcare system, these firms are stretched beyond their capacity, with expansion and hiring a huge challenge.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, most Indian health tech firms saw a huge spike in demand. The second wave has only increased the demand further.
India registered 3.79 lakh new COVID-19 cases and 3,645 deaths on April 28. The situation is especially worse in Delhi, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, where people are struggling to find oxygen cylinders and ICU beds.
The health tech startups have pivoted their business model by launching new services and are scaling up to cater to the newer demand coming in from all quarters.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Bengaluru-based telemedicine startup MFine saw an 80 per cent increase in online consultations across the country, led by the four metros. Since 2020, the numbers have increased 10 times. The company, which has over 4,000 doctors on its platform, does 12,000 consultations per day currently.
Dhruv Suyamprakasam, founder, iCliniq, a Coimbatore-based telemedicine startup, said the platform saw the demand increase 8-9x in 2020. “While the demand came down in late 2020, the numbers are seeing 8-9x spike again over the last few weeks,” he said. The company does 2,500 consultations now, an 8-9x increase from pre-pandemic levels.
Both Suryamprakasam and Ashutosh Lawania, co-founder, MFine, explained that the pandemic has changed the narrative for telemedicine in the country. It became more or less mainstream for a couple of reasons.
“Last year saw increased digital adoption and that was a huge tailwind. Customer behaviour saw a huge change and patients were more willing to come online,” says Lawania.
Suryamprakasam explained that non-COVID patients had nowhere to turn to and many of them turned to telemedicine. All these resulted in a huge spike, which is expected to continue.
In addition to telemedicine, remote health-monitoring platforms like Dozee, too, gained traction. The company helps hospitals monitor patients using what it terms as step-down ICU. What it means is that the company uses sensors under the patients’ beds to track the key vitals remotely and alerts the hospitals or staff in charge, if there is a change.
Mudit Dandwate, CEO, Dozee, explained that this could take the load off the healthcare system in India, which is already constrained amidst rising cases. Currently, there are about 4,000 patients that are being monitored and Dozee has partnership with over 150 hospitals.
Apart from scaling existing services, most firms also pivoted their business model to address the growing needs of people.
For instance, MFine launched multiple initiatives over the last 14 months. Apart from home RT-PCR tests, the company launched COVID-19 inflammation tests and high resolution CT scans. Recently, it launched COVID-19 homecare plan for Rs 2,499 for 15 days, where patients get unlimited consultations with physicians, pulmonologists and dieticians. It covers four family members.
It also launched an application to measure your SPO2 level (oxygen level in the blood) using a smartphone camera. It was built using a proprietary algorithm. According to Lawania of MFine, the company has done sufficient testing and the measurements are precise. Its beta version is currently available in Android and will soon be launched in iOS as well. MFine has partnered with over 600 hospitals and 400 labs.
Dozee, too, launched a homecare plan for monitoring patients at homes. The cost of the kit, which includes a contactless sensor, can be bought for Rs 7,999 through e-commerce platforms. The sensor, which is kept under the mattress will monitor metrics like heart rate, respiration, stress and sleep quality through the smartphone application. Any change in vitals will immediately alert the doctors and the patient’s family.
Launched a little over a week ago, the company has already got 1,000 customers. With demand likely to increase, the company is looking to expand production.
These are not only startups that have stepped up during the pandemic. Other startups in the space like online pharmacy firm Pharmeasy, which entered the unicorn club recently, aims to vaccinate 3 crore people through its partner networks. The company has 5,000 doctors on board. Bengaluru-based startup Portea launched a home isolation programme for COVID-19 patients.
The challenge is expansion and hiring.
Take for instance, iCliniq, which employs over 50 people. The company has been planning to hire about 30-35 people across various roles such as domain experts, technology roles and content writing. However, it has been a struggle so far.
Suyamprakasam of iCliniq explained: “There are multiple reasons for challenges in hiring.”
For one, due to COVID-19, the level of uncertainty has increased, amplified by personal experience. Some of them have paused their job search plans. Another reason is that new hires will have to undergo training for the transition to the health tech space and not many are willing to make that shift currently.
“Also well-funded startups are willing to pay more and make it tough for us to hire,” Suyamprakasam added.
This is especially difficult when scaling up is paramount. With more people affected, catering to the existing demand has been challenging enough. Most of them are working for longer hours and are constantly communicating with teams on ground.
“So it is like this. We have low capacity and the demand is way too high. It takes much longer to send reports and there is always a big queue,” says Lawania of MFine.
“Not just us, but the entire healthcare-provider ecosystem like ourselves are running on 150-200 percent capacity. Everyone is stretched,” he added.
“We are more than 300 people now and ramping up,” he said. The company is also looking at multiple processes to cut down wait time even as it looks to expand and scale up.
One, the company is telling upfront to patients that reports will be delayed. As people wait for reports, MFine is offering complimentary consultation to allay the anxiety. It is also quickly ramping up the technology side of the business as it looks to further expand hospital and lab tie-ups in Mumbai and Pune, where the demand for the services is huge, and in Chennai and Kolkata later.In case of Dozee, as the demand for step-down ICUs increases, it is expanding its headcount from the current 29 employees. Dozee and MFine did not say how many more employees they would hire.