With the rising number of Coronavirus cases in India, digital healthcare platforms are seeing a surge in online health consultations. Bengaluru-based health-tech company Practo said that online queries related to fever, cough, cold, sore throat and body ache have increased by 200% in the last one week.

The company said in a recent study that most of the queries came from tier 1 cities like Bengaluru, Delhi-NCR, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, and Chennai, and among the tier 2 cities, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Bhubaneshwar, and Indore inquired the most on its e-consultation platform. Practo’s trend analysis also suggests that most queries came from people in the age group of 20 to 30.

The company says it gets over 2 crore users monthly and in view of Covid-19 outbreak has added more general practitioners on its platform. Countries such as China and the U.S., too, are encouraging people to opt for e-consultation using video call, chat, or phone to assess their condition before going to a hospital. “Hospitals are crowded and routine check-up visits and preliminary investigation must be avoided while we gear up to address the larger challenges facing us today. Telemedicine can address outpatient queries, allowing hospitals to address those that are symptomatic and are critical. Overcrowding the hospitals will leave us even more vulnerable,” Practo said.

Fortune India spoke to Alexander Kuruvilla, chief healthcare strategy officer, Practo, on the pros of e-consultation and public-private partnerships in times as these.

Edited excerpts:

Amid the outbreak, what are the common queries that people have?

Earlier, mental health, gynecology and dermatology used to the most consulted specialities. Most of the common queries witnessed since the beginning of March are related to fever, cough, cold, sore throat, and body ache. These queries have shown an increase of 40% in the same time period. Moreover, doctors are getting more and more consultation requests, even at 2-3 am. People are worried and are consulting doctors even for the slightest of symptoms.

Right now when the doctors are stretched with work, how can online consultation apps like Practo help make things better for them?

Each general physician on Practo typically consults 25-30 patients a day, but, in the last three weeks the number has shot up by 3x-4x. An increase in this number is not physically possible to consult. This is when teleconsultation becomes the need of the hour, where platforms like Practo that offer telemedicine can enable doctors to attend more cases and increase efficiency. Telemedicine can address outpatient queries, prevent overcrowding at hospitals, allowing doctors to prioritise cases according to severity. We’ve increased our doctor base by close to 50% in the last four weeks so that access is not a concern for Indians. We have reached out to more doctors and hospitals to use Practo’s platform to teleconsult their patients. It not only helps avoid gathering and overcrowding at hospitals but also keeps the medical staff safe if say an infected person shows up unannounced. The platform also has a senior medical team that has trained the GPs on the protocol to handle Covid-19 symptoms. It allows users to share reports, images, make video calls and is available 24x7 across 20-plus specialties with ETAs as less as 60 seconds.

For a huge population like India, do you think telemedicine is the way forward?

Our country has a wealth of medical expertise, yet it is also one of the largest countries in the world in terms of both area and population. If one has a smartphone, he or she can consult a doctor, irrespective of his or her location. So definitely, telemedicine allows people to consult a verified doctor instead of self-medicating and do all that affordably. Moreover, location is no longer a constraint-a person in a small town in Andhra Pradesh can consult a specialist in Delhi, without having to move/travel the distance. Specific to Covid-19, one of the best ways to ensure maximum coverage (medical attention)and minimum spread at clinics, waiting rooms, ERs, is to make use of virtual visits. Virtual healthcare or teleconsult, allows one to reduce exposure while receiving care affordably at the comfort of one’s home. It can be used effectively as a screening mechanism, whereby only serious cases are advised to go for tests and physical examination, as required.

You said that the PPP model will come to India’s rescue. What will it entail?

Technology, along with human expertise, can go a long way in the country’s fight against Coronavirus. Platforms like Practo that offer telemedicine and teleconsult can enable more and more doctors to attend to a patient online, and if they find the patient to be at high risk, can advise one of the three steps: i) go see a doctor physically and alert the physician in advance, ii)contact the respective state health departments who can then conduct tests remotely, iii) advise on self care and self-quarantine. It would be a win-win to get government doctors on board such platforms, so they can pay a virtual visit and advise next steps, including tests at home, if possible. It will definitely make a positive difference in screening patients, protecting healthcare workers and containing spread of the infection, by reducing the contact infected individuals have with others and helping with follow up care when in quarantine.

What are the chances of error in your risk-assessment mechanism?

A qualified doctor would always do his best to ensure the patient gets the best care he needs it at that point of time. If during an online consultation, the doctor feels the patient needs to see a doctor physically, he will do that. In fact, that’s one thing we take very seriously on our platform. There are stringent protocols in place, and training by very senior doctors happens every now and then, to ensure best care is provided and that the patients are advised to see a doctor physically, if there’s a need for it. We have a medical team headed by highly accomplished and respected doctors in the Industry to aid with deep industry insights and strategic inputs on everything we do.

What are the areas in India’s healthcare infrastructure that can be improved?

Indian doctors and scientists are considered among the best in the world and India has emerged as one of the finest medical tourism destinations in the world. Sure, there’s scope towards making digital healthcare more mainstream. The way central and state authorities and health departments have come together to promote digital and teleconsult in such times when social distancing is critical, is commendable. And we’re working with them to find out ways to ensure that the change is not temporary, and that sound policy and regulations are built around it, so as to ensure that the service and quality standards are not compromised.

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