Arora does not know, yet. It is not the ‘next big idea’ that he will soon compete with. His competition will be the sheer number of users backed by infinite resources. Will Lybrate be able to prepare for what is to come? In short, Jio.
Earlier this year, Reliance quietly launched the JioHealthHub app, exclusively for Jio subscribers. Arora shows the app on his phone. It is just a health data storage app, in beta version. He knows that, but what he doesn’t know is that soon it will bring the doctor to the phone screen. The JioHealthHub app, according to Google Play, has been downloaded between 100,000 and 500,000 times so far. A tenth of Lybrates’ reach at best. But Jio considers each of the 100 million users as potential customers. And converting them to app users is just a matter of time, is Reliance Jio’s motto. Once out of beta testing, the company plans pre-installing the app for every Jio subscriber. And once it gets doctors on the app, JioHealthHub will become ready to compete with Lybrate.
Meanwhile, with $11.4 million from Tiger Global, Nexus Venture Partners and Ratan Tata, Lybrate has proved that there’s a compelling need for teleconsultations between patients and doctors. Since its launch in January 2015, the app has convinced 100,000 doctors to provide e-consultations. It claims that it has 4.5 million downloads and serves as a platform for 6 million interactions a month by way of searches for doctors, health queries and patient-doctor communication. (The Ken could not independently verify these numbers.)
Neither is focused on profits or more users, just yet. Lybrate has the edge in users and a steadily growing revenue, Rs 22.4 crore in FY16. Jio plans to tie up with hospitals and get the app on cell phones owned by every Jio subscriber. The users will come, sooner than later, the telco seems to know it.
The real challenge for both is to retain the healthy user, even after she has accessed medical services on the app. The only way these apps can become sustainable and build scale is by getting users to stay loyal and use them when the user falls ill. With strategies poles apart in this virgin territory of medical services app, Jio and Lybrate are out to ensure that once the user downloads the app, she is hooked for life. Whoever cracks this puzzle first will lead the way for the nascent teleconsultation industry.
An idea ahead of its time
The previous generation of technology-smitten government officials was driven by the dream of taking healthcare to a suffering child, in a remote part of rural India and save her life, says Dr SB Bhattacharya. In 2006, Dr Bhattacharya was part of the task force on telemedicine formed by the then Department of Information Technology. He was then with GE Healthcare and is currently writing a book on telemedicine. Since physicians are scarce, estimated to be in the ratio of 1:2000, and concentrated in cities, the end was to help the rural poor access doctors.
Communication made easy
“A few doctors, who were interested in telemedicine, needed technology that enables audio, visual and bandwidth for a consultation. Although the technology for audio existed, the visuals needed a better bandwidth in the late 1990s,” says Dr Bhattacharya. The answer came in the form of satellite communication offered by ISRO in 2001. “ISRO offered bandwidth for free to government hospitals and for a large fee to private hospitals, which was one of the reasons why the private sector never got interested,” he added.
However, the government pilot programmes on telemedicine never took off because no one could prove the benefits to a patient, who was dependent only on teleconsultations.
In its infancy, telemedicine was a tool with state governments to reach millions in the remote rural parts of the country, struggling against diseases in the absence of physicians. For about two decades, it attempted to grow with limited bandwidth, in fits and starts.
A decade later, the need for telemedicine and the benefits that telecom companies offer remain the same. The doctor-on-call service offered by telecom major Airtel for subscribers across India failed for precisely this reason. It was too expensive at Rs 35 per call, and the diagnosis on a call for a person in need did not work.