India Needs More Integrated, High Quality E-Commerce Initiatives In Healthcare

In the digital space of India, many startups have been actively engaged in giving shape to a good number interesting and path breaking ideas, especially since the last ten years. One such area is ‘electronic commerce’ or ‘e-commerce’.

In the e-commerce business, particularly the following business model is gaining greater ground and popularity:

Here, an e-commerce company plans to generate large revenue streams on hundreds and thousands of items without producing and warehousing any of these, or carrying any inventory, handling, packaging and shipping. It just collects, aggregates and provides detailed and reliable information on goods and/or services from several competing sources or aggregators, at its website for the consumers.

The firm’s strength primarily lies in its ability to draw visitors to its website, and creating a user-friendly digital platform for easy matching of prices and specifications, payment and delivery, as preferred by the buyers.

Growing e-commerce in India:

Today, e-commerce players in the country are not just a small few in number. The list even includes many of those who have already attained a reasonable size and scale of operation, or at least a critical mass. Among many others, some examples, such as, ‘Flipkart’, ‘Bigbasket’, ‘HomeShop18’, ‘Trukky’ and ‘Ola’ may suffice in this context.

Currently, these companies try to satisfy various needs of the consumers related to, such as, lifestyle, daily households, logistics, and other chores, at any time of the users’ convenience and choice, with requisite speed, variety and reliability.

Healthcare initiatives need to catch up:

Despite the overall encouraging scenario, every day in India a large number of the population, even those who can afford to pay, at least a modest amount, still struggle while going through the unstructured and cumbersome process of access to better and comprehensive health care services. The situation continued to linger, despite the ongoing game-changing digital leaps being taken by many startups in various other fields within the cyberspace of India.

Nevertheless, the good news is, it has now started happening in the healthcare space, as well, though most projects are still in a nascent stage. The not so good news is, many of these world class services, though available, are still not known to many.

The medical treatment process is complicated:

The medical treatment process is just not complicated; it is non-transparent too. There is hardly any scope for doing an easy-to-do personal research by common people to ascertain even a ballpark number on the treatment cost, with requisite details of the various processes, that a patient may need to undergo. 

Thus, in pursuit of quality health care at optimal cost in today’s complex scenario in India, one will require to get engaged in time-intensive and complicated research, first to find out, and then to effectively manage the multiple variables for access to comprehensive and meaningful information to facilitate patients’ decision making on the same. For most people, it’s still a challenge to easily collect all these details on a user-friendly platform of any credible and transparent online website.

The usual treatment process:

The usual process that any patient would need to follow during any serious illness is cumbersome, scattered and non-transparent. This is, of course, a natural outcome of the generally deplorable conditions and, in many cases, even absence of quality public health infrastructure in India, forget for the time being about the Universal Health Care (UHC). 

During such illness, one will first need, at least, a General Practitioner (GP), if required a secondary and a tertiary doctor, alongside well-equipped diagnostic laboratories. Then follows the medical prescriptions, or advice for any invasive procedure, buying the right medicines, as required for the treatment of the disease condition, and thereafter comes the desired relief, hopefully. 

Each of these steps being different silos, there were not many easy options available to most patients, in this tortuous quest for good health, but to go for expensive private health care. Currently, this entire process is over-dependent on word-of-mouth information, and various advice from vested interests.

Never before opportunity:

There seems to be an immense opportunity waiting in the wings for any e-commerce business in India, providing a comprehensive and well-integrated information network for the patients directly, enabling them to take well-informed decisions for reliable, cost-effective and high quality health care services.

This has been facilitated by increasing mobile phone usage in India. According to India Telecom Stat of January 2016, the number of mobile phone users in the country has now crossed one billion. Experts believe that a large section of these subscribers will soon be the users of smartphones.

Rapid growth of internet connectivity with the affordable smartphones, fueled by the world’s cheapest call tariffs, commensurate availability of various attractive packages for data usage, would empower the users avail integrated, comprehensive and high quality e-commerce services in the healthcare sector too, sooner than later.

Would it reduce health care cost?

A transparent system of integrated health care services could bring health care cost significantly.

For example, one can find out from such websites, not just a large number of doctors from any given specialty, including dentistry. Alongside will be available many other important information, such as, their location, availability time and fees charged.

This would help patients comparing the doctors from the same specialty, especially from the quality feedbacks published on the website. This would facilitate patients taking a well informed decision for disease treatment according to their individual needs and affordability. The same process could be followed for selecting diagnostic laboratories, or even to buy medicines.

Such open and transparent websites, after gaining desired confidence and credibility of the users, would also help generate enough competition between healthcare service providers, making the private health care costs more reasonable, as compared to the existing practices.

These e-commerce companies would arrange immediate appointments according to the convenience and needs of the patients, and also help in delivering the prescribed medicines at their door steps. 

Some initiatives around the world:

Many startups are now setting shops in this area, around the world. Just to give a flavor, I would cite a few examples, as follows, among many others:

Name Country Services
Doctoralia http://www.doctoralia.com Spain A global online platform that allows users to search, read ratings, and book appointments with healthcare professionals 
iMediaSante http://www.imediasante.com/ France Provides patients to make medical appointments from a mobile for free. 
DocASAP http://www.docasap.com United States An online platform enabling patients to book appointments with the doctors and dentists of their choice.
Zocdoc https://www.zocdoc.com/ United States Solves patient problems with instant online appointment booking, provides verified reviews and tailored reminders.
Lybrate.com https://www.lybrate.com/ India Provides access to a verified online doctor database of over 90,000 medical experts, including in Ayurveda and Homeopathy, for appointments and to ask any question.
Practo http://www.practo.com/ India An online platform for patients to find and book appointments with doctors. Doctors use Practo Ray software to manage their practice.  

An Indian example:

In this sphere, one of the most encouraging Indian examples would be the Bangalore based Practo Technologies Private Ltd. This startup debuted in 2008, and in a comparative yardstick, has been the country’s most successful business in this area, so far. Its key stated goal has been bringing order to India’s rather chaotic health care system.

Currently, Practo connects 60 million users, 200,000 doctors and 10,000 hospitals. According to a May 27, 2016 report of Bloomberg Technology, Practo website is used to book over 40 million appointments, every year.

This e-commerce company also offers online consultations, and home deliveries of medicine. Its software and mobile applications link people and doctors, as well as hospital systems, so that they can effectively manage the visits and billing, while helping patients find physicians and access their digital medical records.

At present, Practo offers services in 35 cities, and plans to extend that to 100 by the end of this year. The company reportedly is now expanding in Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, with a future expansion plan in Latin America, starting with Brazil in March 2016.

How would India shape up?

Although, these are still the early days, according to Grand View Research Inc., based in San Francisco in the United States, the global healthcare information technology market is right on track to reach US$ 104.5 billion by 2020. Increasing demand, especially from the middle income population for enhanced healthcare facilities, and introduction of technologically advanced systems, are expected to boost the growth of this industry.

Increasing rural penetration of e-commerce on integrated health care, would be a major growth booster for this industry in India.

Besides its distant competitor Lybrate, Practo does not have any tough competition in India, at present. However, the scenario may not remain the same, even in the near future. 

Keeping an eye on this fast growing market, two former top executives from India’s e-commerce leader – Flipkart are launching their own health-tech startup creating a new rival for Practo, according to the above Bloomberg report. Thus, it is a much encouraging fast ‘happening’ situation in the interesting digital space of the country. 

Conclusion:

Evolution of Indian e-commerce in health care is an encouraging development to follow. It would offer well-integrated, comprehensive and cost-effective health care services to many patients. Gradually penetration of this digital platform, even in the hinterlands of India, would help minimize quality health care related hassle of many patients, along with a significant reduction of out-of-pocket health expenditure cost.

Interestingly, there is no dearth of doomsayers against such novel initiatives, either. A few of them even say, it doesn’t make sense for the doctors to list themselves in the e-commerce directory for the patients to find them, as the patients desperately need them for any medical treatment, in any case. Others counter argue by saying that acquiring patients online should be a preferable way for doctors to maximize their income, among others, especially by eliminating the referral fees, which many specialists in India require paying for the source of referral.

However, I reckon, a larger number of credible and transparent e-commerce websites for integrated healthcare services, all in one website, would enhance competition, bring more innovation, and in that process delight many patients in India. Never before it was so promising, as the country is making a great progress in the smartphones’ usage, along with Internet access, in the country. The unique facility of free search for medical care services would also help patients immensely in choosing quality, and cost effective medical treatment interventions that would suit their pocket. 

To achieve this goal, the highly competitive digital process of integration and aggregation of requisite pre-verified latest information on different health care service providers and aggregators, in the most innovative and user-friendly way, would play a crucial role. In tandem, delivering the prescribed medicines at the patients’ door steps in strict compliance with the regulatory requirements, would really be a treat to follow in the rapidly evolving digital startup space of India.

The name of the game is ‘Idea’. The idea of offering innovative, well-integrated, comprehensive, user-friendly, and differential value delivery digital platforms for healthcare e-commerce. It shouldn’t just overwhelmingly be what the sellers want to force-feed, but where the majority of patients on their own volition can identify the differential values, and pay for these, willingly.

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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