oDoc: Better healthcare for all is now a reality

oDoc’s Chief Executive, Heshan Fernando; Chief Operations Officer, Ashik Bari; Chief Growth Officer, Nare Bandaranayake; and Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Janaka Wickramasinghe.

This startup is making high-quality healthcare universally accessible, affordable, and personal by unlocking the potential of digital technology.

Due to the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, the world adopted digital technology at a greater scale. As a result, we were able to tackle our daily tasks more efficiently and effectively despite the challenging circumstances. From how we conduct meetings to how we order essentials and even how we consult a doctor, most things needed to change for us to be safe amidst the pandemic.

Digital alternatives became the best and sometimes the only solution that adhered to government safety guidelines and guaranteed convenience and efficiency. oDoc is one such platform that significantly assisted the fight against Covid-19 in Sri Lanka by making doctors easily accessible to patients. A pioneer in Sri Lankan telemedicine, oDoc is an innovative mobile phone application that, when downloaded, enables users to carry out doctor consultations through video, audio, or even chat functions.

In addition to doctor consultations, oDoc allows users to request medicine delivery and mobile lab units to their home through its app. Since its inception in 2017, oDoc has grown to cover over 200,000 lives in Sri Lanka, India, and he Maldives. With nearly 1,000 registered doctors covering over 60 specialisations on its platform, oDoc is truly the epitome of a convenient telemedicine service.

In 2020, in response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, the Ministry of Health appointed oDoc as its national telemedicine partner, allowing users to consult government doctors free of charge. This development helped bridge the accessibility gap between urban and rural populations, enabling oDoc to offer convenient healthcare across the nation.

oDoc’s Chief Executive, Heshan Fernando; Chief Operations Officer, Ashik Bari; Chief Growth Officer, Nare Bandaranayake; and Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Janaka Wickramasinghe spoke to Echelon about the company’s success and plans to take telemedicine mainstream.

Sri Lanka’s Healthcare space has been slow to evolve despite tech disrupting other industries at a rapid pace. What do you think is the reason for this?

Healthcare is a sensitive and close to heart topic because it pertains to someone’s life and wellbeing. For centuries people have visited their doctor in person. They are inherently used to having a doctor physically examine them – checking their pulse, lungs, or blood pressure. So telemedicine and online doctor consultations pose a challenge to long-held beliefs.

Primarily, it relates to whether a doctor can truly diagnose a patient without physically examining them. To which the answer is, they can! As a result of this behaviour and beliefs, telemedicine hasn’t caught on fast enough in our country. However, disruptive change, like for all things, starts gradually and then grows suddenly!

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a watershed in the field of telemedicine because it was the only available option for non-urgent healthcare during the lockdown. Even after the lockdown ended, people remained reluctant to go to crowded healthcare facilities due to the risk of contagion from undiagnosed Covid-19 patients.

Suddenly, what seemed like a solution exclusive for the tech-savvy Colombo elite became a need for the masses. The increase in adoption we’ve seen over the last year by both patients and practitioners has confirmed that we are headed in the right direction.

Tell us how oDoc is challenging the traditional healthcare model with technology-driven solutions and why is it important?

The American Medical Association has found that 75% of regular doctor visits can be successfully carried out virtually, and we believe the number here is also pretty much the same. An essential aspect of virtual consults over oDoc is the privacy, confidentiality, and comfort you may not get in a hospital. This plays an important role when having access to mental and sexual health advice.

Most people do not want to be seen seeking mental or sexual health advice due to the unfortunate stigma surrounding these topics. With oDoc, you can access any medical health professional from the comfort of your home, where you have total control of your privacy.

We aspire to be a one-stop-shop for all your healthcare needs. As the population ages, convenient access to healthcare becomes vital for those that take care of multiple family members (elderly parents to young children). We have introduced oPharma, an online pharmacy service, and oLabs, a mobile lab service. Everything from consulting a doctor to getting your medicines delivered and getting blood tests done at home is all possible without leaving the comfort of your home with oDoc.

How has the response to oDoc been so far and what has been the trend post-Covid-19?

We’ve been in operation since 2017, and till 2020, the uptake was gradual with consistent month on month growth. However, the pandemic was a major catalytic event, with the company growing by 5X in 2020. Previously, our biggest challenge was convincing someone to experience their first telemedicine consult.

After the first consultation, having experienced this healthcare delivery method’s convenience and effectiveness, individuals usually become advocates themselves, spreading awareness to their networks.

With the pandemic, we were able to grow our pool of advocates as more and more people tried telemedicine for the first time! Importantly, we have seen this lockdown utilisation spike normalise into our new post pandemic base rate.

On our corporate side, we had over 20 new companies signing up with us for our corporate package, which gives access to unlimited doctor consultations for their employees and allows for convenient recurring PCR testing on their staff as required by the government guidelines.

We have introduced opharma, an online pharmacy service, and olabs, a mobile lab service.

What more needs to be done for it to become ingrained as a go-to?

Telemedicine is widely used in countries with higher digital adoption, and I believe it is a matter of time before the South-Asian region fully embraces it. Daily we have more and more new users signing up on the platform, and the percentage that goes on to do their first consultation has been on a steady upward trend which is promising. Having said this, I do believe there is a lot more we can do as a company, as members of the healthcare fraternity, and as a nation to utilise telemedicine and its advantages better.

As always, we first need the support of our healthcare professionals if we want to make a healthcare initiative like telemedicine a go-to for the public. One thing that we have seen work is when doctors explain how exactly they can diagnose without examining a patient in person: for example, asking about symptoms, the severity of symptoms, patients’ medical history and more.

Hearing this from a doctor is more comforting and gives the patient the confidence to turn to virtual consults. Following the pandemic, we launched the Sri Lankan National Telemedicine Platform on behalf of the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka as a CSR project, thus enabling any Sri Lankan to obtain free medical advice from any corner of the county.

This initiative has improved patient outcomes as other ailments and illnesses are not neglected due to missed or late diagnosis due to the fear of visiting physical healthcare hubs. It also went a long way in creating trust and awareness amongst both patients and practitioners.

How do you plan to build on what you have created?

We are building the digital front door to the healthcare and insurance industry. Having laid the foundation for the healthcare industry, we are now starting on the insurance industry. To this end, we recently partnered with one of India’s largest Third Party Administrators to bring world-class TPA services to the insurance industry in Sri Lanka.

This will enable us to create a seamless customer experience across the healthcare and insurance verticals in Sri Lanka. Thus, bringing us closer to our vision of making high-quality healthcare universally accessible, affordable, and person.