E-health startups gear up for smaller cities, towns

E-health startups that saw a spike in business during the covid-led lockdown have their eyes set on smaller cities and towns to attract new customers with offers of value-added services like chronic illness care.

The founders of these startups believe the covid-19 pandemic has led to a significant shift in consumer behaviour toward online health services due to their convenience and faster access, prompting a search for the next wave of growth.

Before the pandemic there were 3.5 million households using e-pharmacy services. This grew nearly three times to 9 million in May, and is projected to increase further to 70 million households by 2025, according to a Ficci white paper on e-pharmacies published in August.

Around 50% consumers reported a decline in face-to-face doctor consultations during the pandemic. There was also a shift in demand for home delivery of medicines, according to Ficci’s findings.

Online health platform Practo that saw a sharp increase in online consultations claims that teleconsultations on its platform have grown by 10x in the last six months; 80% of all telemedicine customers were first-time users and 50% consultations were for patients from non-metros.

“At Practo, now we want to capture the next 200 million customers by continued focus on expansion and growth in Tier 2 cities. We will build a multilingual interface that will expand access to quality healthcare and enable interactions in native languages, bringing quality care to remote locations” said Shashank ND, CEO and co-founder, Practo.

Analysts agree the next wave of growth for online healthcare will come from non-metros.

“As the novelty wears off and the demand-driver moves from contactless to expertise—the ability for small town residents to pick any “big city” expert anywhere,” said Prasanto K. Roy, a tech policy consultant.

For online health platform 1mg Technologies, the focus is on value-added health services like chronic care plans, expanding its diagnostic business to include vaccinations at home and building its healthcare advertising business.

The firm’s business grew over 65% from April to August and is at peak levels, getting very close to profitability, said co-founder Prashant Tandon, co-founder, 1mg Technologies and chairperson, Digital Health Platform, an association of e-pharmacies of India.

“1mg is also deepening its partnerships with hospitals, insurance and pharma companies to build strong digital health offerings to woo more users,” Tandon said.

Bengaluru-based Portea Medical has in the last six months served over 1.5 million patients in their home environment offering services for chronic diseases, besides teleconsultation for almost 50,000 patients, and a chatbot service that saw more than 2.3 millions chats.

“We see increased demand for our chronic disease management solutions, as those with uncontrolled chronic diseases are more impacted by diseases like covid-19,” says Meena Ganesh, MD and CEO, Portea Medical.

The e-health sector in India is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 68% to $16 billion by 2025, according to a report by RedSeer Consulting.

The report also estimates that eHealth services will reach 57 million households over the next five years.

Besides covid-19, startup founders believe that the government’s efforts to digitize the interaction between consumers and providers like pharmacies, doctors and diagnostic centres have also given an impetus to online health platforms.

In March, the government released guidelines for telemedicine and then, in August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the National Digital Health Mission.

“This has given a huge structural and regulatory boost to the digital health sector. Digital health is here to stay and India has a long way to go,” 1mg’s Tandon said.

Shashank said the future of the healthcare industry is patient-centric, integrated and preventive and for that it requires a good blend of offline and online.

“The platforms will see more competition and patients and doctors, more choice. Many doctors have been unhappy with platform conditions, commissions, or limiting features, and will have more options to choose from,” Roy said. – Livemint

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