Nimith Agrawal, founder of health-tech startup DoctCo, spent years travelling to Delhi and Chennai from Varanasi for his sister's medical follow-ups. His sister, a juvenile rheumatoid arthritis patient, lost vision in her right eye due to delays in getting appointments.  “We have a very poor patient-to-doctor ratio and when it comes to super-specialists, the ratio is even worse. We have 3,373 patients per super-specialist,” says Agrawal.

Agrawal's experience is not an aberration but the norm for many in the country. Up to 60% of healthcare facilities in India are concentrated in a handful of large cities, according to Niti Aayog's latest report. Released earlier this year, it acknowledges that the low presence of doctors in semi-urban, rural and remote areas has resulted in limited access to healthcare services for a large number of people. Health-tech startups like DoctCo, Mom’s Belief, Babyready and are trying to bridge this gap by leveraging technology.

DoctCo helps patients living in tier 2 and tier 3 cities get access to super-specialist doctors, most of whom are typically based in metros. The seven-month-old firm has set up physical centres in Agra, Aligarh, Varanasi and Meerut to start with. Each centre is equipped with IOMT (internet of medical things) devices and a telemedicine suite to facilitate online consultation between super-specialists and patients. “The IOMT devices transmit clinical parameters in real time. We kind of mimic in-person care,” says Agrawal. The centres are manned by a junior doctor and a paramedic who screen the patients and often act as intermediaries between them and the doctors. “Each area has its own dialect and certain local terms that may not be understood by the super-specialist doctors,” explains Agrawal.

While some of these startups are broadbased some are niche. Gurgaon-based startup Mom’s Belief is trying to help the parents of differently-abled children better connect and take care of their needs. The startup has created a network of 750 professionals comprising child psychologists, occupational and speech therapists and special educators for the purpose. “We train the parents so that they can become a co-therapist and take charge of the child,” says founder & CEO Nitin Bindlish. The two-year old firm focuses on child development and caters to children who are autistic, have Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy or are impacted by developmental delays. Nearly 80% of the company’s online customer base comes from tier 2 and tier 3 cities such as Dantewada, Andaman and Nicobar Islands while 64% of its over 100 offline centres service these regions. “If you travel 40 kilometres from a tier 2 or tier 3 city, it is difficult to find even a pediatrician,” says Bindlish.

Entrepreneur Snneha Lukaa runs Babyready, an online healthcare platform that addresses fertility issues. The startup supports patients and individuals who are looking to conceive through procedures like IVF (In-vitro fertilisation) and surrogacy. It acts as an intermediary, connecting patients with doctors of proven expertise and clinics. Lukaa says patients in tier 2 and 3 cities areas aren't guided properly in terms of treatment, and are major markets for the startup. The firm also facilitates loans for IVF treatment that can cost as much as ₹1 lakh per cycle. Meanwhile, Mumbai-based startup has developed an AI-enabled stroke care platform that enables clinicians to view emergency cases remotely and support remote diagnosis and treatment decisions. The solution has been used by hospitals in small towns like Assam’s Tezpur.

India’s health-tech space currently accounts for just about 1% of the total healthcare industry and has enough room to grow. From about $1.9 billion in 2020, the industry is estimated to grow to $5 billion by 2023, according to a joint study published by Praxis Global Alliance and IAMAI. This can be seen by the deals underway as well as the aspirations of these startups. DoctCo is negotiating a funding round with investors and plans to expand to 700 physical centres in the next three years. Mom’s Belief will soon close its Rs 150-200 crore series A2 round and will use the capital to expand to 500 centres over 18 months, hoping to reach two lakh children from the current 20,000.

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