Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on Dawn.com.

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience

.

Tech Talk: A health startup looks beyond cities

Updated March 10, 2019

Email

CEO Asim Alam puts his money on tech and redeemable cards to expand healthcare access in Pakistan. — Dawn
CEO Asim Alam puts his money on tech and redeemable cards to expand healthcare access in Pakistan. — Dawn

Pakistan is one of the worst performers when it comes to health indicators, be it the infant mortality rate or the number of doctors/hospitals per 1,000 people. If you take the big cities out, the gravity of the situation amplifies manifold. Webdoc.com.pk is a startup, working out of Islamabad that believes a subscription-based digital health service could solve part of this problem.

How does it work? Well, you need to be a subscriber first for which you will have to buy one of their monthly cards. Webdoc currently has four packages, starting from the basic one for Rs225 which gives you unlimited chat and call duration with a doctor, along with access to your medical reports. The premium package, called Befikar card, is priced at Rs750 and includes video chats along with free medicine (up to maximum Rs450 and at most six times a month). These can be purchased from franchises across different cities, ordered via call and delivered at your doorstep, or bought from the website/app via mobile wallets.

CEO Asim Alam puts his money on tech and redeemable cards to expand healthcare access in Pakistan. — Dawn
CEO Asim Alam puts his money on tech and redeemable cards to expand healthcare access in Pakistan. — Dawn

The app has a rather lengthy registration process, first asking for verification via phone number or email address, then creating a profile, filling in details like gender, address and identification number. But it gets pretty simple afterwards. You can choose your language, add your medical conditions or see the list of available doctors among other things. From there, you can directly make the voice/video call.

In order to tap on the feature phones market, Webdoc is partnering up with telcos and landline service providers that would let the telecom’s users avail the startup’s service through free calls by dialing a certain number and paying a small weekly fees, deducted directly from their phone’s credit. The service is already live with one company while deals are being brokered with the rest of the network carriers.

They currently have 47 full-time doctors working as general physicians in call centres across different shifts. The doctors are verified by Pakistan Medical and Dental College and as a rule, should have a minimum of three years of experience.

How’s the call like? The doctor asks your medical history, age and other symptoms and tries to diagnose and prescribe a medicine accordingly. An average call ranges between 2.5 and eight minutes. All of it is pretty similar to what a general practitioner does in any neighborhood clinic, minus the physical examination. Now obviously visiting the doctor is likely to be more effective but the issue here is that of access.

“While most of us in major cities can easily visit a good doctor, that’s not really the case in small towns and rural areas where there is a dearth of qualified doctors and the affordability is limited too. That is our target market, and our service allows people to consult a certified doctor without any hassle,” Chief Executive Officer Asim Alam says.

However, Webdoc isn’t the first player to make this proposition. Years ago, there were a couple of companies that did something very similar, in fact even a bit more. Medicard, for example, had an annual health card for around Rs3,200 that offered on-call non-emergency medical services from doctors along with discounts on a panel of hospitals and clinics. But it closed down around 2009. Why? We can’t say for sure but a former employee Dawn spoke to said it had something to do with internal family issues and one of them settling abroad.

Let’s talk present though. Healthtech is rather competitive subsector in Pakistani ecosystem, with well-funded players like Oladoc.com or Marham.pk already having captured a reasonable market. What makes Webdoc suitable to survive in this space?

“The predominant model in this industry is that of online booking and consultations, but they mostly have specialist doctors and target urban middle and upper middle classes -- working on an Uber-ised model and charge a certain commission per booking done through them. Ours is completely different, with periodic subscriptions at much lower price points and with a panel of full-time general physicians working for us. So everything from the business model, target market and supply are different so this isn’t exactly a competition,” the CEO claims.

Their revenue stream is pretty simple, as they make money through their monthly cards or subscriptions via telcos. According to Alam, the startup is already green, thanks to their massive customer base (claiming that around three million people have been served so far). And that makes him reluctant to raise any investment in the near future, at least not until the user base hits the 15m mark.

Alam launched the startup in March 2017, who was working as a chartered accountant in telcos sector. “I oversaw a number of digitisation measures in corporate life and since access to healthcare was a big issue in Pakistan, particularly beyond the urban centres, I felt this could be addressed with tech”, he recalls.

Whether private tele-health startups could solve the country’s problem of lack of access to quality healthcare is a question only future can answer. Some might argue that the problem requires a more centralised approach from state authorities, but that is too philosophical a debate for this piece. Until then, let’s see how much of this underserved market can Alam capture.

The writer is member of staff:

m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com

Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2019