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How 21 start-ups built India’s largest telemedicine collective against COVID-19

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Over a million phone calls and 3,000 high-risk COVID-19 cases in India have been detected, thanks to a two-month-old telemedicine initiative.

How 21 start-ups built India’s largest telemedicine collective against COVID-19
Over a million phone calls and 3,000 high-risk COVID-19 cases in India have been detected, thanks to a two-month-old telemedicine initiative. But StepOne is more than the sum of its 6,000 volunteer doctors that have begun running consultations over the phone across eight states. At its very foundation are 21 start-ups across segments like tech, cloud telephony, funding and telemedicine that put it all together.
"A bunch of us from the start-up ecosystem, including executives from Flipkart, Urban Company and Bounce, formed a group called Start-ups Versus COVID," said Rahul Gupta, co-founder of StepOne in a chat with CNBC-TV18, while retracing the origins of the initiative. “Before long, a hundred people were part of our group and by the end of the day we were 250."
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The group began getting to work on March 17 — a week before India decided to begin locking down on March 24. Its first order of business was to detect the best way to battle the pandemic. "We knew telemedicine was the way to go especially after reading about doctors in COVID-19 wards testing positive," said Rahul.
The idea was first mooted to the Karnataka government where the administration decided to route 30 percent of calls to the state emergency help line 104, to StepOne that began operating its IVR on the number 9745697456. “In a matter of time, we were handling half these calls, while soon enough, all calls were being routed to us,” Rahul said.
How StepOne Works
Until StepOne came to be, most state administrations began battling COVID-19 through dedicated COVID-19 helplines where calls would be made by those experiencing symptoms. The only problem: each call centre would be staffed by a workforce of 40 to 50, which paled in comparison to the number of suspected cases.
Using cloud telephony, StepOne has allowed callers to punch in their symptoms, and based on whether or not multiple symptoms were being reported by callers, the system would signal whether or not a patient required having a doctor call them back. "We have been getting close to 50,000 calls every day, while 7 to 8 percent of these receive a call back from a doctor based on symptoms reported,” said Rahul.
At the heart of StepOne's IVR are cloud telephony start-ups like Kaleyra, Exotel and Ozonetel. "Once a call is made, SaaS major Freshworks will use its software to help raise tickets with phone numbers, symptoms, language preferences, and a caller’s contact tracing details in case their tests turn out positive. "Of our 6,000 volunteer doctors, nearly 800 take tickets on a daily basis depending on the traffic,” said Rahul.
Companies Leaving Competition Aside
One of the most commendable features of StepOne is the manner in which competing start-ups have collaborated to make the initiative a success. "All three cloud telephony companies on board hustle each and every day and compete with each other," said Rahul, "But it’s unbelievable that these companies have kept daily competition aside, to fight COVID-19, together. A total of seven healthcare start-ups are part of StepOne: DocOnline, Clinikk Healthcare, Practo, DocsApp, Quarabl, mFine and MedLife."
While each volunteer as part of the initiative is unpaid, server costs and cloud telephony costs have had to be covered. For this purpose, StepOne received funding of Rs 25 lakh each from ACT Fund (a collective of VCs and start-up founders) and Omidyar Network India.
States like Karnataka, Punjab, Maharashtra, Odisha, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland and Uttarakhand have come on board the IVR, even as StepOne is looking to reach out to as many as 20 states in the near future. StepOne’s IVR is available in languages like English, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi and Nagamese.
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