Healthcare in India: How tech startups can help

Deepak Prakash, a senior executive in an IT company had a heart attack and collapsed while in a meeting with the CEO. A high profile investment banker – named Gurcharan - in Mumbai, had to get his foot amputated due to his diabetic condition. And numerous other professional examples spring to mind. But could these wealthy Indians have prevented the medical crisis which they found themselves in?

Indians avoid visiting a hospital unless they are carried in on a stretcher. Each one of us believes in avoiding the three coats - white coat of a doctor, black coat of a lawyer and petticoat of you-know-who. I had an unavoidable itch to investigate what lies under one of the coats – I mean the white coat.

The healthcare business or industry in India is largely in the unregulated and private sector. This means collecting data and statistics is next to impossible. People visit the local doctor in case of minor ailments and pray that they don’t get any major disease requiring hospitalization. The prayer is a necessity because hospitalization costs can be extremely steep.

I have heard horror stories where families had to sell their houses and run into debt due to expenditure on their near and dear ones. This situation is prevalent in ninety percent of the Indian population. I really don’t see anything changing here – at least not in the next ten years.

And then there are a miniscule lot who have the resources but don’t have the time or inclination to look after their heath. Prakash and Gurcharan fall in this category. There is too much stress and tension in the high rise towers of Mumbai. If the commute from home to office doesn’t cause a vertical and sheer rise in blood pressure, the office atmosphere is sure to kill you. Hypertension, hyperventilation and hyperactivity are constant companions. People just don’t stop working till they virtually drop dead. Medical checkups are few and a doctor’s recommendations are usually ignored.

Health insurance is not compulsory in India. Health is a personal matter and left to individuals. There is a lack of standardization in the insurance sector, which makes things all the more confusing. The Indian government has brought in legislation which is neither here nor there. Patients pay cash out of their pocket for medical expenses even when they have health insurance. 

This is the larger picture. I was curious to know what the tech startups are up to in healthcare sector. Not surprisingly there are hundreds of small and innovative startups trying to heal some of the wounds. I found that most are in the digitizing and records management space. Setting up doctor appointments is another area which seems to be popular. In my quest to understand the intricacies of the online health management process, I decided to speak to Dr. S.S Sunderarajan, Ph.D in bio-medical engineering from Ohio State University.  He is the cofounder of an online heath management portal

The first question which came to my mind was about the crowded online space in this sector. Dr. Sunderarajan suggested that many startups did not have the necessary expertise to run a health related venture. Most are low tech websites masquerading as portals. Essentially they are providing an online calendar for doctors to manage appointments. Registering patients and doctors and bringing them together on a single platform seems to be the offering in general.

“There is a humungous amount of data generated from patient’s records. There is invaluable information to detect, diagnose and prevent lifestyle diseases if properly analyzed. This requires an analytical tool to be designed which would give a visual representation of data,” Dr. Sunderarajan explained.

The prevalence of lifestyle diseases like [type two] diabetes and hypertension is alarming. Unfortunately, we get doctors into the picture only when we are already neck deep into health problems. These diseases can easily be prevented if properly monitored and detected at an early stage. This is termed as wellness program by Dr. Sunderarajan. The portal also helps doctors by sharing a holistic view of patient’s medical history, highlighting risk factors, tendencies and past procedures.

There are many health startups who would claim that they have an equally robust and more versatile platform. I am sure there are many noteworthy startups.  However, I picked up a few which I thought were unique in their offering.

Socialblood is an interesting startup going piggyback on the power of Facebook. Finding similar blood group people in an emergency can be a tough task anywhere and particularly so in India. It is an initiative which brings together blood donors by syncing Socialblood with Facebook. Founder, Karthik Naralasetty and his team have created a fairly simple interface which allows users to narrow down on blood request and donors available for a particular blood type. The map pulls up that information and helps users who need the information.  At Socialblood, the mission is  to create an easy, trustworthy and a reliable network of donors, hospitals, blood-banks and supporting organizations around the world.

Another startup in healthcare which caught my eye is HealthifyMe. At a time when young and smart Indians are nurturing tummies on their fat salaries, an app to give them a means to track their indulgences was always on the cards. This space has been occupied by Healthifyme. Modern lifestyles demand people to sit and work in a sedentary position. The IT sector is known for its unhealthy work habits – round the clock supply of coffee, biscuits interspersed with dollops of ice-cream. The result of such excesses is well documented.   

HealthifyMe app helps people track their nutrition, fitness and weight, provides them insights about their lifestyle and suggestions to improve it. It also connects them with live experts that can guide them better towards their health and fitness objectives. They claim to have built the world’s first Indian foods database, which has tens of thousands of foods available in nearly 13 regional languages.

While the young hog the limelight, old people who truly require healthcare are often ignored. Krishnan Ganesh, a serial entrepreneur, has launched Portea Medical specifically to provide low cost subscription based healthcare services to the elderly. Assisted by his wife, Ganesh’s Portea Medical has in-house staff of doctors and trained professionals to provide preventive care and early diagnosis. This home medical care service is targeted at the old and infirm who are unable to visit hospitals. Indeed a thoughtful initiative for the old.

Overall, the outlook for the healthcare industry, especially the startup ecosystem, does seem promising. What remains to be seen is how well these entities will perform in terms of quality of service. And only time will reveal the answer, as increasing volumes of initiatives spring up in this unregulated space.


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Sankarambadi Srinivasan

Sankarambadi Srinivasan, ‘Srini’, is a maverick writer, technopreneur and a geek. He writes on transformational social processes and technology trends which influence our daily lives.

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