The fifth metro: Malady map of India

Data from healthcare start-ups can help better address the country’s public health challenges.

Written by Saritha Rai | Updated: February 22, 2015 11:39:34 pm
Many Indians ignore simple, preventive healthcare measures because information is so hard to come by. Many Indians ignore simple, preventive healthcare measures because information is so hard to come by.

Bangalore has a preponderance of homebound patients with various cancers while Delhi, comparatively, has fewer cases of cancer but greater incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Chennai has a significant prevalence of homebound patients with lung conditions and neurological diseases while Mumbai residents suffer from a variety of infections. This data is by no means scientific. But as healthcare start-ups begin to mine medical information and analyse it, the blurry contours of a Malady Map of India, if it can be called that, is beginning to emerge.

The disease-city correlation comes from the patient base of the healthcare start-up Portea, whose data also reveals that, besides cancer, lifestyle diseases like diabetes and hypertension strike not just Bangalore’s elderly but also its young. Bangalore-based Portea, funded by the likes of Accel Partners and Qualcomm Ventures, provides home-based medical services, sending its doctors, nurses and physiotherapists to care for patients within the comfort of their residences. Three-quarters of Portea’s patient base is 60-plus. Lung disorders, cancers, neurological diseases and lifestyle diseases form the bulk of the conditions it encounters.

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“Nearly half of India dies of chronic disease, which is quite a contrast to the West, where a large section of the population dies of old age,” said K. Ganesh, chairman of Portea Medical. “Disease strikes Indians much earlier in life, many people are afflicted in their 30s and 40s and, increasingly, people are diagnosed early.” The start-up averages 35,000 patient visits a month across 20 cities.

The data coming in from the early movers in the healthcare segment is as yet anecdotal. “But it is enough to spark off a more scientific look at the challenges in Indian healthcare,” said Anu Acharya, CEO of genomic diagnostics firm Mapmygenome. Many start-ups, including her own Hyderabad-based firm, have not yet achieved enough scale to mine data, so findings are sketchy.

Healthcare data already available in India, collected mainly through government networks for decades, is vast but exists in snatches. For instance, health ministry studies have revealed a preponderance of diabetes in southern India compared with the rest of the country, the high prevalence of liver cirrhosis in Punjab and the rising incidence of breast cancer cases. Eventually though, through the use of technology and data analytics, the country’s healthcare start-ups may help stitch a more lucid portrait of the challenges.

Bangalore-based start-up Practo offers a first glimpse of what kind of professionals Indians are looking for. Practo, which helps Indians search, connect and schedule appointments with its growing database of doctors in a variety of medical specialties, reveals that gynaecologists, dermatologists and dentists are the most searched for specialties. Dandruff, missed periods and pregnancy, as well as dental cavities are among the top concerns amongst those using the search tool. Practo has 1.2 million users doing four million searches in India every month, says Shashank N.D., its founder. Psychiatrists and sexologists figure among the top 20 specialties users look for, reveals Practo, whose backers include Sequoia and Matrix Partners.

Overall, the lack of access in India to basic healthcare information is shocking, says Nandu Madhava, founder of mDhil, another Bangalore-based start-up that creates India-specific online videos around health and wellness. MDhil predominantly focuses on women’s health- and lifestyle-related content.

“Healthcare is not just emergency care, as is made out in the classic sick person-being-rushed to-emergency-room scenes in Bollywood films,” says Madhava, whose start-up creates awareness videos in English, Hindi and several Indian languages. The videos spotlight birth control, menstrual health and other touchy themes. Many Indians ignore simple, preventive healthcare measures because information is so hard to come by. Women’s health concerns are particularly neglected, says Madhava, whose learnings are from the online consumption of mDhil videos, which have been viewed over 20 million times.

India’s healthcare needs and costs are mounting. Data from healthcare start-ups like Practo, Portea and mDhil might help target more innovative investment in healthcare. Madhava of mDhil says traditional models of government spending, charitable giving and grant-making need to be overhauled to leverage changes in technology that can better address India’s public health challenges. Says Madhava, “It is tough for these institutions to innovate, that’s where start-ups and entrepreneurs can make the difference.”

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