Internet Proliferation, Govt Push & Evolving Consumer Behaviour Enabling Growth of Tele-Health in India

Internet Proliferation, Govt Push & Evolving Consumer Behaviour Enabling Growth of Tele-Health in India

By: Dr. Gowri Kulkarni, Head of Medical Operations, MediBuddy and Dr. Preeti Kumar Goyal, Vice President of Medical Services, MediBuddy vHealth | Monday, 11 September 2023

Dr. Gowri Kulkarni, Head of Medical Operations, MediBuddy and Dr. Preeti Kumar Goyal, Vice President of Medical Services, MediBuddy vHealth

Dr. Gowri and Dr. Preeti are doctors at the forefront of embracing and enabling the digital revolution, leaving behind traditional approaches to adopt a digital approach in their medical practice. They have played a crucial role in laying the foundation for health-tech at MediBuddy and have been instrumental in improving healthcare delivery through the integration of technology.

As subject matter experts, Dr. Gowri and Dr. Preeti have worked towards creating the right tech platform that ensure precise and safe data transfer. They have worked diligently to establish ecosystems and guidelines that enable efficient service delivery while upholding the importance of health standards in health-tech.

Moreover, Dr. Gowri and Dr. Preeti have contributed significantly to creating new career paths for aspiring doctors.

In a candid and expansive conversation with Rachita Sharma, Managing Editor, Women Entrepreneur India, Dr Gowri and Dr Preeti talk about their respective journeys in the Indian healthcare sector. They outline their tryst with tele-health and the factors behind its rise in India.

Here are choice excerpts from the conversation.

Rachita: Tell us a little about yourself and the work that you currently do as a doctor and a leader at Medibuddy.

Dr. Gowri: I'm Dr. Gowri Kulkarni, a doctor and a leader at Medibuddy. I have been working here for seven years and I have learned a lot of new things. I started as a psychiatrist, then became a GP, and then got into health tech. Health tech is using technology to help people with their health. I met Satish from Medibuddy in 2015 and he showed me how technology can help us reach more people and give them better service. I have seen how health tech has grown and changed in the last few years. Now I take care of the doctor relations and the medical operations at Medibuddy. I look at all our services that involve doctors or health care providers. That is my work life. On a personal level, I am a mother and I have many hobbies. I believe in holistic care, which means taking care of the whole person. I also believe in being holistic myself. I like to have different sides to my personality so that I can do my best at work. That is who I am, Rachita.

Rachita: Thank you for sharing such an intriguing story about your life. Could you please share some information about yourself, like your background and profession, Dr. Preeti? We'd love to get to know you better.

Dr. Preeti: I completed my traditional medical education in Delhi, specializing in gynaecology and obstetrics (OBG). After a few years as a gynaecologist, I transitioned to working in public healthcare with the government, where I became involved in various health programs, especially for women and children. I worked alongside ASHAs and ANMs in villages, setting up healthcare centres where none existed. I participated in initiatives like the Pulse Polio program, providing polio vaccinations to children in underserved areas.

In 2016, I ventured into health tech when I joined a startup involved in teleconsultations, connecting doctors with patients via phone or video. Later, I worked with another company, engaging in tasks like quality assurance, managing electronic health records (EHRs), and monitoring doctor-patient consultations. These were new experiences compared to my earlier traditional medical practices. Seeking new challenges, I pursued an MBA at IM Calcutta to expand my horizons beyond medicine. I aimed to use my skills in either software development or management to work on larger projects. In 2016, I joined my current company, which was inspired by the Swiss telemedicine company, Medgate. Telemedicine, the use of technology to aid remote patient care, was a novel concept for me. Despite the risks, I embraced this opportunity and continue to contribute to the field through Medibuddy.

Rachita: Dr. Gowri, you mentioned your decision to specialize in General Practice (GP) and connect with the grassroots level. Can you elaborate on what motivated this choice and how you aimed to impact patient care?

Dr. Gowri: Absolutely, in the mid-2000s, I realized the importance of accessibility to healthcare for the general population. People often prefer visiting their local GP rather than specialists due to trust and familiarity. However, GPs may lack expertise in areas like mental health. So, I decided to become a GP myself. I believed in prevention over cure and holistic patient care. GPs have a unique opportunity to impact communities positively, offering continuity, awareness, and health education. They take a horizontal approach, considering overall well-being. That's why I pursued GP training.

Over time, I noticed higher patient adherence with GPs. Patients returned for follow-ups, improving treatment compliance. GPs invest time in understanding not just physical health but also mental, social, and financial aspects. Patients might not take medication due to cost, a simple issue that GPs address. My motivation stemmed from building trust and rapport with patients. They would seek a GP's opinion even after seeing specialists, valuing the relationship. In GP practice, each patient brings unique challenges and surprises, making it a rewarding experience.

On a larger scale, increasing the number of trained GPs can alleviate the burden on tertiary care systems, reducing the overall illness load. Shifting from a specialist to a generalist outlook has made me a better person, and I hope I've made a positive change for my patients. In summary, I chose GP to bridge the gap between specialized care and community needs, promoting holistic healthcare and reducing the burden on higher-tier healthcare systems.

Rachita: Dr Priti, you had the opportunity to see how telehealth and telemedicine programs work in Switzerland. From the perspective of having seen it in a developed country, where did you think India stood in terms of adopting telemedicine? Also, what were some gaps that the Indian market faced?

Dr. Preeti: Europe, and the US are mature markets in terms of providers, receivers and payers as well. I went to Switzerland back in 2015-2016. At the time, telemedicine was not very prevalent throughout Europe, however, insurance pretty much covered the entire country of Switzerland and Germany. We chose this organization specifically because it was the pioneer in setting up telemedicine services throughout Europe.

I noticed that Western countries are great at standardizing things. They had already standardized how telemedicine should be done, how it should be delivered, expected outcomes and what not to do. At the time telemedicine was pretty much non-existent in India. The Indian market was not mature enough. And issue was that the use case. In Europe or Switzerland, telemedicine was tied up with insurance. It acted as a gatekeeper to claims for advanced treatment. So, a use-case was already built. It had government backing and a protocol regulatory body was in place too. Both these things were missing in India.

Another major missing link was data privacy laws or regulations around telemedicine. The US has HIPAA and Europe has GDPR. However, India had a patchwork of different acts, the IT acts, the CDSCO, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act etc. The data privacy bill was passed very recently in India.

These three gaps existed at that time and exist today to some extent as well. Telemedicine in India is taking a different direction, which is also good.

Rachita: We see that health tech has gained prominence in India over the last few years and is expected to grow even further in the years to come. In your opinion, what were some of those key factors that have enabled the growth of health tech in India in the past couple of years?

Dr Preeti: The first resource required for health-tech is technology. Today, the availability of fast internet with 4G and now 5G has increased. The availability of affordable technology like smart in tier 3, tier 4 cities has also made a difference.

The government push for the National Digital Health Mission that was launched in the August of 2020 also did a wonderful job.

The third push and a big one was provided by the pandemic. When traditional methods of healthcare delivery were unavailable, people who did not trust telemedicine also adopted it. So, it is safe to say that tele-health is here to stay.

I also think that it has not only enabled the connection between the doctor and patients. It has also played a role in strengthening the ecosystem in general. For an instance, today one can book pathology tests using the internet. So, labs had to upgrade themselves. Similarly, e-pharmacies came up. It pushed the pharmacies down out streets to also be available on apps or on phones.

With the rise of tele-health there has also been an entry of quality players who envision being in the market long-term. Earlier in 2015-16, even till 2020, telemedicine was open for all. Anybody could come in for a few years, one year, two years, and then pull back. But now players entering the market are here to stay. They are investing in quality and technology. This has helped build patients’ trust.

Dr. Gowri: Availability of smart phones, internet, and the push provided by the government have played a key role. Today everybody is working towards the common interest of growing digital healthcare, and this is the right time to do so as well.

We have to understand that we are also having to evolve because user behavior is changing. We are all getting comfortable using technology and it makes every aspect of our life easier today. There is a shift in the behavior of the user. The adoption is increasing because of that as well.

And the customer or the user are evolving with this. As with any other sector, HealthTech is also growing with that. And parallelly, healthcare professionals are also adopting technology. Healthcare professionals also need to be tech savvy today. I think this also helps to ensure that we are in the direction where health tech and digital health is here to stay.