The new normal may be the great windfall that Shashank N.D. and his startup, Practo, were waiting for. But it did not happen overnight. In fact, Shashank cofounded the company along with his NIT classmate Abhinav Lal initially as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company which offered medical data access and practice management from anywhere. Tele-consultations and medicine delivery, the core of the business presently, came in later.
With several rounds of funding and predictions of being “the next unicorn”, Practo was already on the cusp of glory when the pandemic hit. The sudden digitisation prompted by the lockdown catapulted this Bengaluru startup into prominence. An average of two crore patients are served per month. Yet, Shashank feels Practo has only “scratched the surface”. Excerpts from an interview:
Q/ During the pandemic and lockdown, business boomed for Practo. Did you expect a scaling up to these levels so quickly?
The sudden explosion of interest in telemedicine may give the impression that our health care delivery went through a tectonic shift in a very short time. But, in truth, this has been over a decade in the making for us. We spent years researching, evaluating and testing software that allows patients to securely connect with doctors via chat, audio, or video calls 24x7x365 in a zero-friction environment.
So, when demand for health care services went up with the onset of the pandemic, our strong foundation enabled us to plug this gap and also strengthen existing services for the future. There are now over 25,000 verified doctors who provide online consultations on Practo. This is indicative of growth to the tune of over 1,000 per cent in just four months.
Q/ The government tweaking the rules for tele-consultation was a big shot in the arm. How difficult was the path to achieving this?
The Telemedicine Practice Guidelines released by the health ministry in partnership with NITI Aayog helped provide the necessary impetus to telemedicine amid the pandemic. The guidelines enabled certified medical practitioners and facilities to serve their patients anytime, anywhere.
Q/ While the business model has got acceptance in urban India, how much more work has to be done to take it to the hinterland?
We started Practo with the objective of making quality health care accessible and affordable for all. When we had just begun, close to 90 per cent of online consultations were from metro cities. But as years passed and awareness grew, we saw a steady rise across the country. This divide between metro and non-metro cities was further narrowed down by the pandemic. In just three months since [the lockdown started], this 90:10 ratio became nearly 50:50.
Statistics show that [only] a small percentage of patients treated by telemedicine have to visit a hospital for further treatment, avoiding simple cases from overcrowding hospitals.
Overcoming challenges [in remote areas] requires the adoption of technologies that can bring both people and facilitators together. With India’s rural internet users increasing by 58 per cent annually, we are hopeful of... onboarding the next set of 200 million users over the coming years and going beyond the current 16,000 pin codes to over 25,000 soon.
Q/ Practo has been called a ‘near-unicorn’ for a long time. Has the past year helped you finally achieve that milestone?
We started the company to solve consumer problems and that is what matters to us. Over the last decade, [Practo has] grown to serve over two crore patients a month with the help of over one lakh health care providers. But while these accomplishments should be celebrated, we are aware that we have barely scratched the surface of what is yet to be achieved.
Q/ Further growth of tele-consultation depends on scaling up of technology, like checking health parameters through smart devices. Your comments.
Given the gulf between demand and supply of quality health care services, there is much to be accomplished and technology continues to open a window of opportunity to fast-track this process. In the time to come, we will harness disruptive technological capabilities like AI to strengthen existing [non-medical] capabilities, increase operational efficiencies and improve user experience across products.
Q/ Practo has a management software for online doctors. Tell us more about the company’s tech development side.
Practo's smart matching algorithm connects a patient to a verified doctor, factoring in their unique health problem, the doctor's area of speciality, their availability and feedback from other patients. Furthermore, we also make software products (Ray, Qikwell, and Insta) that help health care providers digitise and deliver efficient health care. The secure platform that we have built is designed to maximise patient care and confidentiality, and enable physicians to effectively evaluate, diagnose and treat patients in-person as well as remotely.
Q/ What are the upcoming innovations or business features you are working on?
We will double down our efforts to ensure registered medical practitioners have access to our platform, actively fight all forms of quackery, onboard more senior doctors to train and monitor the quality of consultations and build a multilingual interface that will enable interactions in native languages.
Q/ How have Practo’s operations in other countries been going?
We have made inroads overseas and are seeing a positive impact in those markets as well. Our clinic and hospital management solution, Insta, largely operates in the Middle East and has grown three times post-acquisition in 2015. It is currently being used in over 1,250 centres across 22 countries and we are all set to scale this up further.