Harnessing technology to connect doctors and patients

By December 1, 2014 No Comments

The idea for Practo Technologies first came to Shashank N.D. when he was still a student at the National Institute of Technology, Surathkal. Shashank was trying to get a second opinion from an American physician for an operation that his father was about to undertake when he found out that there were several inefficiencies in how doctors in India worked.

For one, the dependence on physical reports appeared unnecessary when technology was becoming all-pervasive. “I remember taking photographs of the medical reports with my digital camera, uploading it to my computer, and then emailing it across to my doctor. This created a lot of problems—for instance, whether the figure in the report was a 6 or a 9”, says Shashank.

Shashank began talking to doctors to try and understand why they were not using digital records. Or why they weren’t using information technology (IT) to manage appointments with their patients or taking advantage of the Internet to market themselves. He discussed the matter with his classmate, Abhinav Lal, and the two founded Practo in their final year of engineering.

The coding for the first version of the product was completed in two weeks and they found doctors interested in their product. Today, 25-year old Shashank runs a 120-employee organization that runs a cloud-based platform with more than 8,000 doctors who subscribe to its services at 5,000 healthcare centres across India. In a day, nearly 10,000 appointments are managed by the cloud-based service, which manages the records of nearly three million patients.

Practo’s flagship product, Practo Ray, is a subscription based service where doctors pay Rs.700 or more per month. Shashank says that the decision to start their own company came at a time when the global economy was at the peak of the crisis in 2008-09. “We were hearing scary stories about pink slips and lack of jobs in the market. A lot of friends, very good friends, advised me not to do it,” he says.

But Shashank was buoyed by the response that his product received and decided to work full time on it. Soon after Practo launched the first version of its software, Shashank and Abhinav began to work with The Morpheus, a start-up acceleration programme in Bangalore. Shashank credits Morpheus for guiding them in developing the product and helping them find customers. He recounts an incident when Morpheus advised turning down an acquisition offer with promises of substantial revenue and to focus on developing the product. “It was clearly the right decision for us,” says Shashank. The focus on the product has helped. Besides the increase in customers, investors at Sequoia Capital were impressed with Practo and invested Rs.25 crore earlier this year.

“The kind of support Sequoia has given us is unbelievable. We have an extremely good relationship with them,” says Shashank. Shashank says that he received great support from his family. His family, he says, didn’t burden him with any expectations. Shashank accepts that he has been lucky: “Both my parents are working and I don’t need to support them,” he says, adding he knows that the other entrepreneurs are not as lucky as he is and this would weigh on their mind. Shashank says these products aim to improve the healthcare system in India, which have been marred by several inefficiencies. He says that in a knowledge-intensive field such as healthcare, removing entrenched practices is difficult. Hospitals in India have traditionally been very reluctant to even share the contents of the medical records with the patients themselves, says Shashank. Practo has found success with private doctors and smaller clinics as they are much more willing to be open and find the service useful.

But in bigger hospitals, administrators typically make decisions on patient management systems and the doctors themselves have no say, he adds. Practo’s success has been largely founded on these private doctors who have been impressed by the breadth of the offering of Practo Ray. Doctors can schedule their appointments anywhere, and access records of patients 24×7 wherever he or she is. Building on the success of Practo Ray, Practo has launched two new products this year.

Practo Hello gives doctors a single phone number that allows patients to book appointments and route calls to office or home phone numbers, and enables monitoring of patient calls by receptionists. The other product, Practo.com, allows the patients to look up doctors online and fix up an appointment with them. Shashank says that the engagement with doctors on Practo Ray helped them set up a database of doctors for the Practo.com service. “We could not have started with Practo.com right away as we would not have been able to tie up with so many doctors”, he says.

Since its launch, Practo.com has made nearly three million appointments with doctors. The boom in the funding of start-ups over the last two years has left Shashank uneasy. “I would meet young entrepreneurs who would proudly talk about the funding that they had received, but when questioned about revenue, they would say they haven’t made any money yet,” he says. With Practo, Shashank says that the company was making money from day one. The recent crunch in funding will actually be a boon for start-ups in India, according to Shashank. The most innovative ideas come about when money is scarce and passion is high, he says. His advice to entrepreneurs: “Don’t be beguiled into this space trying to replicate the success of a Facebook or Instagram. Instead, try to solve a genuine problem.”

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