By Poovenraj Kanagaraj
The telehealth segment in Malaysia has long made its presence, with a blueprint first established in 1997, the segment was part of the nation’s goals to develop the healthcare industry.
However, being in a highly regulated space, the particular segment had not made any significant strides for years. But things have changed ever since. More players such as Teleme and ClicknCare have penetrated the segment offering telemedicine services, expanding the virtual healthcare segment for Malaysians.
One particular player, dubbed as the nation’s first online telehealth platform, DoctorOnCall has since come a long way. First established in 2016, the platform underwent a transformation, from a platform catering to curiosities on non-communicable diseases to vouching for the progress of telehealth services in Malaysia.
The trigger to establishing this platform was not, matter of fact, to solely serve as a platform answering questions arising from the taboo subject, but it was meant to be a solution to an issue.
An issue, one of the founders, Maran Virumandi saw encroaching the healthcare industry. Primary care according to him, at the time, was not going anywhere and businesses were squeezed.
Doctors were in a never ending battle with insurers and with looming healthcare costs nobody knew how to control, the industry was fast approaching a crisis. He then partnered with former Accenture consultant, Hazwan Najib.
With a background in the telecommunications and financial services, Hazwan too was aware of the issue to an extent. “My last client was a major utility company. They spent over RM 700 million a year on healthcare,” he said.
“As a nation with an ageing society and a healthcare inflation that wasn’t controlled, it’s going to be a problem sooner or later,” he added. With career experience spanning across different industries, Hazwan was no stranger to disruptions.
“New technology was brought into those industries but not healthcare,” he said, describing the healthcare industry as almost untouched by technology.
“They were at least 15 years behind digitisation.”
The pre-MCO days
Recalling the platform’s early days, Hazwan told Business Today, it was a struggle to convince doctors and nurses to come onboard. “Our first batch of customers were “loyal internet health seekers” , self-paying customers who were foraging the net for men’s and women’s health advice,” he said.
The early set of customers paid for their own medications and while this contributed to the traction of the platform, both Hazwan and Maran realised it was not sustainable.
“We studied the market a bit more and understood who the main players were,” Hazwan said, referring to the Government and corporate players.
Only catering to 20 percent of the market during the first six months, DoctorOnCall’s co-founders did not want to their platform to be known as a virtual sex clinic and thus the transformation began.
They approached the corporates and insurers, who eventually became the platform’s biggest supporters. This was due to the fact that both these players faced a similar issue.
The platform soon started working closely with state governments, Selangor being the first. The state’s PeduliSihat scheme became DoctorOnCall’s first government related project as they were recognised as partners who were able to cater for the B40 group under the scheme.
They soon ventured into working with other state governments, namely Kedah, Perak, Penang and Terengganu.
“Only when the Covid-19 outbreak had started, we were working with the Ministry of Health on a national level, helping the ministry to propose new guidelines for the telehealth segment in the industry,” Hazwan said, adding on that there were no ‘real’ push from the medical community for telehealth services.
He described it as an uphill battle until the arrival of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Maneuvering through a regulated space
“We heard a lot of horror stories stemming from the long relationship between the industry and the Medicine Advertisement Board and the Health Ministry, but we decided to take on the challenge ,” co-founder, Maran said.
And it paid off. Communicating their initiatives on progressing the telehealth segment came off successfully and at the same time impressed the Ministry which until that point, had failed to realise any successful initiatives.
“We went through a very comprehensive path to educate them and presented case studies from US, Singapore and China on how foreign digital health players have pushed the envelope on e-prescriptions, implementation of A.I. and even when it came to tackling issues on governance and security,” Maran shared with Business Today.
The relationship between the industry and the telehealth segment soon saw a change. During the outbreak, the platform had received requests from the Ministry to support them as a provisionary of health services.
The collaboration brought millions over to the DoctorOnCall site, boosting traffic to unprecedented levels.
“The platform’s digital health services such as its risk assessment’s service saw a five-fold increase in traffic over the last two months,” Maran highlighted.
The outbreak accelerated the growth of digital health
With millions now accessing the site, both Maran and Hazwan believe the outbreak had pushed for the rapid growth of telehealth services in the country.
“It went from just being a complimentary service in the healthcare industry to becoming a mainstream service used by all,” Maran told Business Today.
In February, the site along with the Health Ministry established a Virtual Health Advisory portal to address the Covid-19 risk communication needs.
The platform has since formed a partnership with e-commerce platform, Shopee Malaysia to offer more Covid-19 test options, allowing consumers to purchase Covid-19 real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction tests.
Consumers will also be able to buy vouchers on the e-commerce site allowing them to purchase medication and have it delivered to their doorstep via DoctorOnCall. The partnership will also extend to providing extended usage of the vouchers to book online consultations in months to come.
While the demand for home visits grew exponentially, DoctorOnCall has also established a drive-thru visit for Covid-19 testing in Bangsar.
However, comes the question, if Malaysians were to return to their old ways once the outbreak subsides, will this impact the growth of telehealth services in the nation?
“The jury is still out on this,” Maran says. While unsure about the future, the co-founder continues to work hand-in-hand with partners to ensure their digital health service will be able to help if a potential flare erupts in the future, .
“We are in a conversation with a couple of hospital groups where they will provide telehealth, online booking and medication deliveries as part of their main services,” he told Business Today.
He believes that the progress made thus far will change the nature of engagement between patients and doctors, especially in a climate where fear presides and differences between a common cold and the Covid-19 can be distinguished via a video call.
In terms of accessibility, the platform has provided hotline numbers for users above 60s in order to make it even more accessible and their partnership with Merchantrade Asia Sdn Bhd expands their reach via chatrooms to the migrants and foreign workers alike.
With a growing success on their home ground, both co-founders, Hazwan and Maran believe it might still be too early to expand to the surrounding region despite having had conversations on how they can take their model and integrate it in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia.
“Rather than take an ill-conceived approach now, we decided it would be better to offer an all-encompassing service when the right time arrives,” Maran concludes.