As a doctor , I was very hopeful when digital health start-ups entered India a few years ago. I am a big believer in Information Therapy, and I felt that these start-ups would use technology to help connect patients directly with doctors. They would remove the middleman and reduce information asymmetry, thus making it easier for patients to find a doctor who’s right for them.
This is one of the reasons I’ve been an angel investor in health start-ups, and have followed Practo closely, since it is the poster boy of a successful digital health start-up in India. I was optimistic that once they had raised so much money, they would be able to make a dramatic difference to the way medicine is practised in India. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time and I’m extremely unimpressed by what they accomplished so far.
Loss of focus
It’s hard to know what’s happening within the company, and it may not be fair to be critical when I don’t have any inside information, but as an outsider it seems to me that they are extremely unfocussed. They seem to be doing lots of stuff all over the place – entering global markets without having conquered the Indian market; providing medical software for doctors to run their practices; and they have now even added spas and gyms to their database. This lack of focus makes me wonder where they’ve found the right business model or not.
What’s really worrisome is that the quality of their basic product – which helps patients to find the right doctor – is of such poor quality, even after so many years. Thus, when I did a search for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) doctors in Mumbai, I got results which featured a homeopathic doctor high on the list – who is obviously not doing IVF at all ! I can’t understand why their search results are still so poor, and why they’ve not been able to fix such a basic problem.
The Practo website says that their Practo relevance algorithm is completely organic. This is what is used to determine the order in which the names of doctors are displayed to patients. On the other hand, Practo has now started offering sponsored listings to doctors, presumably to monetise their database. This means that doctors can pay in order to improve their rank in the listings. This suggests that a high position on the listings can be bought by the highest
bidder! Doesn’t this make the listings unreliable ? Does this defeat the original premise of Practo – to help patients find the best doctors?
I’m also concerned about how the recent order by the Tamil Nadu (TN) Medical Council is going to affect their business model. The TN Medical Council has banned doctors practising in that state from advertising online, and has asked doctors to withdraw their names from online registries. Over 1,16,000 doctors are registered in TN, and the Council has sent warning letters to over 100 doctors, asking them to remove their names, photograph, specialty, and contact details from online listings, as they believe this violates the Medical Council of India’s Code of Ethics. While many TN doctors are still listed on the Practo website, if the council starts taking punitive action against them, this may change quickly.
I understand this post has raised more questions than it’s answered, and I was wondering if someone has insights they can share, so we know what’s happening in the Indian digital healthcare space !
Dr Aniruddha Malpani is a Mumbai-based IVF specialist, Director of Solidarity Investment Advisors, Medical Director of the Health Education Library for People and a Charter Member of TiE Mumbai, an entreprenership network. This post was first published on LinkedIn.