Airtel, India’s largest mobile phone operator, has recently tied-up with Religare Technologies, a company controlled by promoters of the Fortis hospital chain, to offer healthcare solutions and guidance over telephone.
By paying an introductory tele-consultation fee of Rs 15 a call, Airtel customers can get basic medical guidance on non-emergency health problems through this service, 24 hours, seven days a week. Airtel charges just 50p for this call.
With a customer base of 173 million, Airtel’s latest value addition is expected to provide a productive platform for Religare to promote their e-health service. Says the latter’s senior vice-president, healthcare IT, Nitin Goyal, “Mobile health is an interesting area, with tremendous growth potential. The play is huge. We plan to build a credible base through this exclusive partnership.”
Airtel is not the first to introduce a mobile health scheme in the country, a recent trend. Some months earlier, telecom operators Aircel and Idea had launched a similar service in association with the Apollo Hospital group-promoted Healthnet Global. Such tie-ups are increasingly seen as a good value addition for telecom companies and a business opportunity for healthcare providers.
|Teleconsultation, SMS, email
service, doctor appointments,
3G video consultation
“Globally, telecom operators such as Vodafone have been running mobile health programmes (m-health) for several years. For India, health services offered through telephone is a relatively new experience,” an industry expert said.
Charles Antony, chief executive officer of Healthnet Global, said they offered the widest range of health services over phone in India today. Healthnet has also tied-up with Apollo hospitals, pharmacies and clinics to cross-leverage the advantage across the country. “We offer teleconsultations in 10 languages through two Medical Response Centres located in Chennai and Hyderabad. There are 65 employees, including doctors, nurses and paramedics and physiotherapists,working 24x7 to address queries from patients across India. In case of serious ailments, customers can book ambulances or get medicines delivered through this service,” Antony said.
Healthnet targets a combined customer base of 130 million through their tie-ups with Idea and Aircel. Antony says his company has tie-ups with 1,300 Apollo Pharmacies, all Apollo Hospitals and some 40-50 non-Apollo hospitals in smaller cities and towns. “We get 1,000–1,500 calls per day and must have serviced at least 700,000 calls till date. We charge Rs 3 per minute for each tele-consultation, while the telecom operators charge their normal tariff for the calls,” he said.
The Religare-Fortis deal is different.. Religare has no visible connection with Fortis, the hospital chain of brothers Malvinder Mohan Singh and Shivinder Mohan Singh. Goyal says the decision to maintain a distance from Fortis was deliberate, as the company wants to be seen as a neutral service provider. “We have our own doctors and qualified nurses to run the system. The service is based on a protocol developed by Medibank Health Solutions, Australia,” he said.
Religare is initially catering to the Hindi-speaking belt and gets most queries from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. On an average, the company which started commercial tele-consultation services for Airtel in November gets on an average of 150 calls a day.
On revenue, Goyal said the initial objective is to create awareness about the product and establish itself by 2013. “We have a number of other offerings such as hospital management software and web-and-voice based platforms. At the moment, we are trying to establish credibility in the telemedicine market,” he said.
Healthnet, which has an exclusive technology partnership with Clinical Solutions UK, says the linkage with Apollo will not affect their credibility but enhances it. “Every call is being tracked and every response recorded for clinical governance purposes. Once a month, a panel of expert doctors reviews these practices and takes a random look at the responses. We have sufficient checks and balances in place,” Antony said.
Incidentally, India’s drug laws do not recognise SMS prescriptions.Under the law, chemists are allowed to sell prescription medicines only against actual prescriptions that contain the doctor’s name, signature and registration number. Mobile health players said they emailed valid prescriptions to their customers if drugs that are to be strictly sold against doctor’s prescriptions are needed. Otherwise, the advice will be mostly restricted to over the counter medicines and home remedies.
Tata Indicom is also known to have offered mobile healthcare services through its partnership with US-based Healthcare Magic, a company with a strong base in Bangalore. Healthcare Magic promoter Kunal Sinha did not respond to an email query sent on Monday.
Incidentally, a position paper released by industry chamber Ficci on ‘Mega trends of the emerging third industrial revolution in India’ on Tuesday had identified the communication technology-healthcare interface as one of the most important trends.
“New age technologies and applications of e-health encompassing tele-medicine and mobile health raise hopes of taking healthcare services to the remotest and the most underprivileged sections of society that have been untouched by physical infrastructure in the past decades,” went the report, prepared by Ficci Young Leaders, a forum chaired by Fortis promoter Shivinder Mohan Singh.