The pandemic may have offered an opportunity for self-reflection to many, but it was also a period of exploration for Practo. As we learned, unlearned and relearned our way through a tumultuous time, the experiences that we underwent helped shape our perspective on the value a company like ours can bring to the world.
In this story, we’ve attempted to capture a fraction of that experience by chronicling the journey of Practo’s tech team as they enabled us to survive and thrive in change.
Working at 7 in the morning may have once been regarded as the mainstay of those working in shifts, but for Abhinav Lal, Practo’s Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, it was a habit that stuck during the lockdown period last year. Born more out of necessity than choice, it gave him just enough time to prepare for his first meeting at 8am with his coterie of co-workers.
“That time is a blur to me now,” says Abhinav, as he tries to remember what happened in March 2020 when terms like ‘quarantine’ and ‘social distancing’ newly entered our vocabulary. “I couldn’t tell the days apart. I just remember toggling between work and meetings, getting up just to clear the backlog of dishes piling up on my sink,” he adds.
Incidentally, this is the story of most Practeons, who volunteered to work seven days a week for months during and after the lockdown. As chaos and uncertainty grew with the Coronavirus, it was all hands on deck as the tech team – with the support of the rest of the company – helped write an incredible story of grit, perseverance and determination.
Steering the ‘war room’ for better healthcare access
“Hello, doctor. This is Sheela. Can you see me?”
“Hi, Sheela. I can see – and hear you – very well. How may I help you?”
As a consultation between a doctor and a patient unfolded in the virtual world, Siddhartha Nihalani, VP – Product at Practo, had his eyes glued to the screen in the real world, intently looking for inconsistencies in the video consultation feed on the platform. Although he has no access to the actual interaction between the healthcare professional and the patient, he and his team have devised other metrics to measure the performance of the technology.
“It’s hard to evaluate the quality of a video call without actually being a part of it. Unless customers flag issues to us directly, it’s difficult to understand how the service can be improved. That’s when we started studying the bitrate of the video,” he says. “Higher the video bitrate, the better the quality of the video. We also monitor other fluctuations in the network for each participant in the video call – in this case, both the doctor as well as the patient. This helps us minimize lags, test overlap in conversations and eventually fix the issue, making the platform more stable with each cycle,” he adds.
When the three-week nationwide lockdown was announced, offline healthcare experience vanished almost overnight. Although clinics and hospitals were allowed to remain open, neither were healthcare workers comfortable taking the risk of meeting patients for non-emergency cases, nor were people opting for in-clinic consultations for fear of contracting the virus. At Practo, this meant going back to the drawing board.
“Due to fear of infection, patients were avoiding in-person appointments at clinics and hospitals. Compounded by the fact that doctors were also hesitant to keep their establishments open during the lockdown period, we had to find other ways to connect patients and doctors,” says Siddhartha. “This was especially challenging because right before the pandemic struck, our focus was on augmenting our offline appointment experience,” he adds.
“What should have unfolded over the course of a decade, unexpectedly happened overnight
Until March 2020, a large portion of online consultations used to happen over audio and other related modes. Video was just picking up, with few patients seeking that as a medium for consultations. So, although the technology existed, it required more rigour to manage the scale and quality the pandemic demanded.
How an unforeseen pandemic taught how to prioritize tasks
The unfortunate irony of a health crisis cutting off access to medical help was propeling all healthcare companies into action. For Abhinav, one of the biggest challenges was to prioritize the areas where Practo could help.
“What should have unfolded over the course of a decade, unexpectedly happened overnight,” he says. “While we were figuring out what needed to be done, we also had to be careful of not spreading ourselves too thin and focus on areas where we could add the most value,” he adds.
According to him, being in healthcare – especially at a time like that – meant that there were a lot of expectations. The fact that there were so many problems to solve, including COVID-19 testing, mental health issues, lack of hospital beds and telemedicine, among others, did not help.
“As a company, one of the mistakes you can make is to try to do everything,” he says. “Helping the team identify the areas where we could make the most impact to serve the country was the single most important role that I could have played during that time,” he adds.
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