India’s teleconsult, e-pharmacies and home medical equipment market saw sharp growth post-COVID, experts say the trend is here to stay
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the frailties of our healthcare system, particularly the abysmally low doctor-patient ratio, and lack of tertiary healthcare systems in tier 2 and tier 3 cities.
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Simultaneously, the pandemic also brought about a rapid expansion in e-healthcare services such as -telemedicine, teleconsult, e-pharmacies, and home medical devices sector.
According to Redseer, the e-health sector reached $1.4 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow 10-fold in the next 5 years to $11-15 billion. The e-health space and technology-based optimisation of the medical infrastructure post-COVIDwas aided by the extensive smartphone penetration, and improving mobile connectivity in India.
Most private hospitals have a teleconsult option now which saw a substantial rise during the COVID crisis. A report by Praxis Global Alliance says, the online doctor consultation market is expected to grow by 72 percent to $836 million by March 2024.
“COVID-19 changed the way healthcare is provided,” Chairman and Managing Director of Max Healthcare, Dr Abhay Soi told this reporter.
Max Healthcare rolled out a video consult platform in April 2020, and also launched MaxMyHealth App the same month. The app has seen cumulative downloads of approximately 1.63 lakh till Oct 31 2021, Soi said, adding, “we believe that even though the Covid related surge in tele-consults will subside, tele-consults will continue to see a gradual growth over the next few years.”
The Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance recently collated data which showed that both patients and doctors were willing to shift non-essential visits of patients to audio, visual, texts messages through apps.
“During the peak of the COVID lockdown, teleconsultants helped patients get in touch with doctors without having to come to hospitals. Teleconsultants also helped immensely in case chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, cardiac issues. It reduced unnecessary crowding at hospitals, and most importantly reduced the financial burden of traveling from smaller cities to major hospitals in another city by ensuring availability of doctors online’’, Dr Bishnu Panigarhi, Head, Medical Strategies, Fortis Hospitals told this reporter.
The digital health ecosystem expansion is being driven not just by teleconsultants but also by telemedicine and e-diagnostics. The market size for telemedicine was $830 million in 2019, it is projected to increase to $5.5 billion by 2025, a 31 percent CAGR. (Source Niti Aayog). E-pharmacies alone garnered $700 million in investments in 2020.
This ecommerce disruption has led to some of the largest businesses foraying into the sector.
Reliance Industries through its subsidiary, acquired a majority stake in e-pharmacy Netmeds for Rs 640 crore in 2020, the Tata Group bought a 65 percent stake in 1MG, PharmEasy bought a 66 percent stake in Thyrocare and acquired fellow e-pharmacy player Medlife.
Although there are some 50 odd e-pharmacies in India, the space is dominated by 4-5 major players.
The essential growth drivers for the telemedicine sector are-increasing internet penetration, higher e-commerce adoption, push to organized channels, changing disease profile (e-Pharmacies primarily cater to chronic patients)
Market intelligence firm Kalagato says e-pharmacies such as PharmEasy, Netmeds clocked a two-fold growth in daily active users, and Practo saw a three-fold rise in April 2021.
1MG, a leader in this segment, owned by Tata Digital controls 56 percent of the medicine delivery market.
According to Prateek Verma, VP & Business Head of ePharmacy at 1 MG, the company has 40 million active users on its platform.
“ePharmacy and eDiagnostics saw a jump of 40 percent during COVID surge while teleconsultations on the platform grew three-fold in those months. Even post Covid, the numbers have stayed more or less consistent with 1mg delivering medicines and diagnostic services to more than a million households in a month across 1500+ cities,” he said.
Rival PharmEasy which became the first Indian e-pharmacy start-up to enter the unicorn club has 25 million registered users, and claims to service more than 18,000 pin-codes. Its acquisition of Thyrocare brought into its fold a chain of 3,300 diagnostic centres across 2,000 towns and cities in India.
Before the pandemic, 3.5 million households were ordering medicines online, that number increased to 8.8 million after three months of the lockdown. (Report, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce)
While the lockdown necessitated the use of online medicine services, the policy shift further integrated e-pharmacies as an essential retail service. In March 2020, through a home ministry notification, the government declared that e-pharmacies along with brick-and-mortar drugstores would be an essential service.
The healthcare sector in India is going through a massive churn; with an expansion of teleconsults, e-pharmacies, miniaturized diagnostics, and the home medical devices sector, especially post pandemic, the potential growth in the sector is substantial.
eHealth has a potential online customer base of 60 million households.
Here is how the healthcare sector stacks up:
-Medical devices represent a sunrise sector. With relatively lower barriers to entry, the size of the Indian medical devices market is estimated at $11 Billion, expected to grow to $50 Billion by 2025* (source Niti Aayog)
-The home healthcare industry in India is expected to grow at an impressive annual rate of 15-19 percent, reaching the market potential of $11-13 billion by 2025 from the present $5.4 billion, according to Redseer.
-India’s diagnostics market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 20.4 percent to reach $32 Billion by 2022. The scope for wearable devices has expanded, as has the use of AI, blockchain, robotic technologies for monitoring and remote diagnostics.
The eHealth sector is driven by aggressive pricing, deep discounts and range from 12-15 percent. The opportunities in eHealth range from triaging, consults, re percentmote monitoring, home health services, e-diagnostics, epharmacies.
But several challenges remain- the regulatory framework for e-pharmacies is still at a nascent stage (draft rules are yet to be formalised), increased digitisation raises concerns over patient data privacy, fake prescriptions, deep discounts disrupt offline players, and are leading to cash burn.
The government released the Telemedicine Practice Guidelines in 2020, and the National Digital Health Mission this year that aims to provide the necessary framework and support for the integration of digital health infrastructure in the country.
Driven by a technology revolution, the eHealth sector can be a great enabler- but it needs a strong regulatory framework to keep pace with and protect data privacy.
—Bhairavi Singh has been a journalist for over 13 years. She writes on foreign policy, current affairs and politics. The views expressed are personal.
(Edited by : Anshul)
First Published: Nov 17, 2021 8:21 AM IST