By Michael Baxtor
It seems that the Indian healthcare scene is going to enjoy a healthier new normal thanks to the COVID-19 crisis; at least this is what experts are suggesting.
It would take a peculiar mindset to be enjoying the COVID-19 crisis. At a recent webinar focusing on the Indian HealthTech scene, it was clear that those who work in this space are no exception. The lockdown is not fun; even those who operate businesses that have flourished as a result of COVID-19, are not enjoying lockdowns. Yet they admit to a sense of optimism — they see a healthier new normal awaiting Indian healthcare, driven by HealthTech.
Tech is a great leveller. It lowers barriers to entry, and for emerging markets, it represents an opportunity to ascend the economic league table and to become developed economies rapidly.
The Zoom economy and the middle-income trap
Maybe tech can remove the barrier that has held back many developing economies for decades.
They call it the middle-income trap. It describes a situation in which a country gains a certain level of income and then gets stuck, unable to make the jump into the next economic category. The World Bank defines a middle-income country as one which has a national income ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 a year per capita in 2012 prices.
It’s a controversial theory, many economists think the middle-income trap is a myth — but whatever the reality, modern technologies could be transformative.
A modern high-tech economy needs a new type of infrastructure; it requires fast internet connectivity and an educated, technically literate workforce. Maybe, however, it doesn’t need quite the physical backbone that has held back emerging markets in the past.
That is why tech represents such an opportunity — it lowers the barriers to entry to the prosperous economic league.
The emerging Zoom economy might be a case in point — conduct meetings from home and the transport infrastructure isn’t so critical.
HealthTech and India
And that takes us to healthcare and HealthTech — India has no shortage of medical expertise. In 2018 India reached the milestone of a doctor to population ratio of one to a thousand, the level recommended by the World Health Organisation. It now has 67,218 modern medicine training graduates a year.
How can that expertise be channelled into creating a healthcare business in India that helps promote it beyond the middle-income category?
“I don’t think there is any going back,” says Abhishek Shah, a digital health entrepreneur who is the Co-Founder and CEO of Wellthy Therapeutics.
“I never thought we could have effective meetings working from home, but we have re-adjusted to Zoom life,” said Manish Singhal, a Founding Partner of pi Ventures.
That, in a nutshell, explains the change. Lockdowns have forced changes upon us. Being in lockdown isn’t so good, but there has also been a kind of awakening — the digital way is a viable way. If we can conduct business meetings remotely, maybe we apply healthcare remotely too — at least to an extent.
What does this mean?
Manish Singhal foresees more doctor consultations performed remotely; we just need “a remote way to operate a stethoscope,” he said.
“But we have become more efficient with less time in meetings” as a result of lockdown enforced remote working,” says Manish Singhal. He added, “Digital health medicine is here to stay, whatever can be done digitally, people will try and do it first.”
Abhishek Shah referred to how regulators are being forced to adapt — “healthcare is very well regulated, but COVID-19 has rattled the slow movement of regulations,” he said.
Maybe it boils down to the parentage of innovation itself. As they say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and necessity has forced us to invent new ways to operate, new methods which often turn out to be better than what we did before. Meanwhile, regulators have been forced by necessity to play a game they are not famous for, the game called rapid innovation and invention.
The healthier new normal
Abhishek Shah and Manish Singhal were both talking at a recent Galen Growth seminar focusing on building an effective HealthTech survival strategy in India.
Also, at the seminar was Amit Munjal, Founder and CEO at Doctor Insta.
He talked about COVID-19 related lockdowns in the context of mental health. “We have seen a 600 per cent increase in areas concerning mental health,” he says. Doctor Insta said that it is on a mission to build the world’s first virtual clinic. He says that the company provides India’s first ‘video medicine company,’ and emphasises how virtual healthcare can save time, and money, removing the hassle from having to travel to see a doctor. Significantly, he talks about increasing productivity at companies.
Gaurav Agarwal is the Co-founder of 1mg. He said: “Things will calm down but will settle at a higher baseline. Before COVID, we never thought you could work from home, but we have realised this new way can be much more effective. Many companies are no longer, for example, contemplating buying real estate.”
“It’s the same with healthcare. The biggest issue is getting customers to try out your services, and COVID-19 is forcing this,” he says. He added that he sees short-term disruption, but long-term digital health will accelerate.
1mg focuses on democratising AI and machine learning in healthcare delivery. It is an excellent example of how Indian startups are embracing fourth industrial revolution technologies and are now supported by the COVID lockdowns — perhaps hastening India’s opportunity to move beyond middle income.
Returning to Manish Singhal, wearing his venture capital hat, he divides the companies in the Pi Partners portfolio into three categories:
- Red — for these companies, the priority is survival,
- Yellow — these companies take a more strategic approach,
- Green — made-up of companies that have benefited from Covid-19 and are trying to move forward while maintaining balance for the future.
pi Partners is an early-stage venture deep tech fund based out of Bangalore. He says that many investors are “sitting on dry powder.” He added, “but there are limited areas you can invest it. Long-run, behaviour will change.” Maybe as that behaviour changes, all that dry powder will be put to use.
Abhishek Shah says that COVID-19 created a “time to look inward. We usually spend our time trying to build the P&L, but there is so much you can do, which, when inspired by the right external environment, can change you.”
This change is not restricted to India of course, COVID has created change worldwide — but it does not discriminate between rich and developing countries. It creates opportunities for both too and maybe opportunities in equal measure.
India’s opportunity is to build upon its already strong position in IT.
Amit Munjal summed it up well, “long-term, digital healthcare will even grow beyond the current level. India has one million doctors and 15 million consultations a day. In a couple of years, I don’t think it would be outlandish to assume 10 per cent will move to a digital platform.”
That would be quite the digital revolution — one that could create extraordinary new digital expertise which could catapult India’s healthcare industry into a business that the rest of the world will notice.
About the author
Michael Baxter is a technology and economics writer. The Group Editor at the Data Protection World Forum, his forthcoming book, co-written with Julien De Salaberry, Living in the Age of Jerk, explores how rapidly changing technology is set to transform the economy, society and even humanity. You may also read Baxter’s previous blog on China here.
About Galen Growth
Galen Growth is the global leader in digital health intelligence, analytics and matchmaking, empowering global Fortune 500 companies and institutional investors to fast track their growth strategies. Galen Growth is hosting its Together Apart HealthTech CEO Survival Strategies Series throughout April. May and June 2020. For further information and details on the next webinar, please our Events webpage.