Telehealth solutions – particularly video consultations – may be on its way to becoming mainstream today, but its proponents were optimistic about the technology’s capabilities years ago. Especially for those seeking online medical help for the first time, text-based interaction may not make sense. With video consultations offering an experience closest to in-person appointments, this was likely to be in high demand amid the pandemic.
“Additionally, I feel the demand was driven by the fact that people were getting acclimated to video calls in general as they worked remotely. In fact, we saw teleconsultations grow by 5x in March 2020,” says Siddhartha Nihalani, VP – Product at Practo. Adds Sarang Sharma, VP – Product at Practo, “This drove us to work on the current version of our video consultation feature, which was built in a record time of less than 10 days.”
There was a clear demand, but the company had to find a way to meet it.
“The number of consultation requests we were getting across specialties in a single hour were so many that even if we pooled together all doctors in our network, it still wouldn’t have been enough,” adds Siddhartha.
The first step was to plug the demand-supply gap. Our medical team led from the front, onboarding more doctors, verifying their credentials, building online courses and conducting demo sessions.
“Doctors are well-equipped to run their practice, but they need our support to navigate a new medium and the practical problems associated with it,” says Siddhartha. “This includes developing a nuanced understanding of how video consultations should be initiated, ways to greet patients, questions that can and cannot be asked, and more,” he adds.
“The number of consultation requests we were getting
across specialties in a single hour were so many that even if we pooled together all doctors in our network, we could not have fulfilled them
What followed was aggressive R&D efforts that involved deep analysis of the data by the tech team and careful examination of the consultation transcripts by the medical team. A part of the learnings were also sent to doctors in the form of daily reports to shorten the feedback loop.
“This ran like clockwork, creating an effective audit process that shed light on problems as they appeared, which we promptly solved through technology,” says Siddhartha. Adds Sarang, “In no time, we’d scaled from a few hundred video consultations a day to close to 8000+ a day. Furthermore, we also introduced several critical updates at the peak of the pandemic, including a cashless feature that enabled a contactless healthcare experience for consumers.”
Thus, these developments were positively impacting consumer behaviour, attained by continuously improving the technology, and simultaneously, equipping doctors with all they need to know to wholly adopt video consultations.
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Setting the stage for a new way of working
At Practo, there is no precedent for an undertaking of this kind when the entire company came together to focus on one single problem. This was, by his own admission, also the first time that such a significant amount of work was accomplished in such a short period of time.
“Everybody was focused on dealing with the additional challenges brought on by the pandemic in building access to quality healthcare,” says Abhinav Lal, Practo’s Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer. “On day 1, we may have had 20 engineers and a couple of product managers working on this. By day 2, this number grew to 40 engineers and more than half the product managers. By day 10, everybody in product, engineering and design were working together on these problem statements,” he adds.
This necessitated new processes that not only accounted for the challenges of working remotely, but also around setting expectations from each member of the team.
“Each team had their own processes in place to manage these tasks,” says Ajay Rungta, Associate Director – Engineering, at Practo. “An openness to frequent changes and the willingness to work together to meet tight deadlines has revealed what we’re capable of as a team,” he adds.
In fact, the company started preparing a month before the lockdown, working on a COVID-19 information dashboard that was launched in mid-March to debunk misguided theories and break the cycle of misinformation around the disease.
“On day 1, we may have had 20 engineers and a couple of product managers working on this. By day 2, this number grew to 40 engineers and more than half the product managers. By day 10, everybody in product, engineering and design were working together on these problem statements
“Most of the work that went behind this initiative was picked up after hours, with many staying back in the office post 7pm,” he says. “This only gained momentum after the lockdown. Not only did we have to adjust to a new way of working together, but also deliver on the high expectations people placed on us. In fact, I would go as far as to say that whatever we built over the last five years suddenly came into use. And when people start using your products, you have to ensure that it delivers,” he adds.
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Behind the scenes of providing 24/7 support to patients
A demand-supply model that allowed doctors to make themselves available for online consultations whenever they wished was sufficient for non-emergencies, but inadequate during a pandemic like this.
“However, matching demand and supply and ensuring shorter wait times for patients amid a pandemic left too much to chance under this model and necessitated a different approach,” says Siddhartha. “We attempted to forecast hourly demand by mapping it out across all specialties for each day of the week. With that data, we got the recommended number of doctors to commit to specific hours in the day and week,” he adds.
The entire technology behind this scheduling system helped predict the gap between patient demand and doctor supply, ensuring a seamless online consultation experience. This was especially helpful to understand demand-supply between 9pm and 6am, when, as it turned out, almost 30% of online consultations took place.
“This system allowed us to provide online consultations to patients 24*7,” says Siddhartha. “During the lockdown period, the percentage of consultations we were compelled to deny because of unavailability of doctors was as much as 15% of the total traffic. This came down to less than 1% as early as June. Today, we continue to maintain this rate,” he adds.
Musings from a period of ‘learning on steroids’
“Was it overwhelming? In hindsight, it’s easy to forget the hardships and struggles all of us underwent in the months following the lockdown, but at that moment, it was definitely overwhelming,” says Abhinav. Adds Siddhartha, “Pushing through 12-15 hour shifts 7 days a week, leading the daily ‘war room’ meeting and taking critical decisions on a daily basis – all while adjusting to a new way of working – indeed got overwhelming at times.”
Both, however, agree that that is not to say that it wasn’t an exciting experience to be able to respond to market needs quickly and effectively, helping so many people along the way.
“I believe the greatest lessons are usually learned through challenging times like these,” says Abhinav. “In fact, I would call that period a learning on steroids – what we would learn in weeks and months were happening in mere days,” he adds. The ultimate lesson for me, however, was that if you have a compelling problem statement, which is both impactful for consumers and meaningful for employees, it’s easy to get them to rally behind that cause,” he adds.
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