[Startup Bharat] How Kota-based Sehat Sathi makes medicines accessible to rural India using tech

Sehat Sathi is a product of MedCords, a Kota-based startup that provides accessible, affordable, efficient, and quick healthcare services by digitising the medical stores and leveraging technology.
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In 2014, Shreyans Mehta’s father - a practising doctor himself, suffered a major slip disc problem, which hampered his movement. This was all the more a challenge as most of his patients waiting for consultation were based in rural areas, and were dependent on the doctor travelling to the area. 

The thought of leveraging technology for the benefit of these patients led  Shreyans and his friends Nikhil Baheti and Saida Dhanavath to start MedCords’ product Sehat Sathi, out of Kota Rajasthan in May 2017. The tech centre is based out of Hyderabad. 

MedCords provides accessible, affordable, efficient, and quick healthcare services by digitising the medical stores and leveraging technology. To understand the market, the duo went to 12 villages where they provided checkups and follow ups on alternate days. 

Setting up the network 

“We take pride in the fact that in those 12 days, we provided consultations to 2500 patients of which 2000 came back for follow-up and were left with a satisfied smile. It was then that we had the Eureka moment of scaling it up to reach every nook and corner of the country. The initial solution being operationally intensive proved difficult, hence we started focusing on making it technology based to scale it,” says Shreyans.

“This is helping us provide real-time healthcare services to the citizens expeditiously and reliably. We are doing this with a very dependable network of medical stores and doctors. The challenge we initially faced was the absence of a benchmark which could be taken as an example,” says Shreyans.  

Challenges of the market 

The biggest issue was access to technology, specifically smartphones in smaller towns and  villages and awareness about how to use them. The second was the pharmacies’ fear of being replaced by big corporate pharmas. 

But in spite of everything, we realised the incessant need for the solution we were providing. 

Our research findings were grim - 

  1. 80 percent of the people living in the villages in India are forced to travel nearly 60 kms for one consultation.
  2. Out of pocket expenditure on medical services of the total expenditure is 63.5 percent. 
  3. More than 85 percent in India still carry their medical records in hard copies, and cannot organise it digitally.

 

Shreyans explains they realised the dwindling healthcare situation after extensive research spanning three years across 800 villages of Rajasthan, MP, UP, and Bihar (with the team visiting various community and primary health care centres and hospitals, and interacting with thousands of people on the ground). The duo encountered two failed pilots before identifying major challenges with respect to healthcare. They began developing MedCords in late 2016, and went live in May 2017. 

“For every population of 1800, there is one pharmacy. In total, there are 1.6 million pharmacies that cater to 50 million of the population in India. In the smaller cities and villages where healthcare facilities are limited, the local pharmacies are the best alternative or as they are called colloquially there, ‘aadha doctor’ (half a doctor),” says Shreyans. 

Building the pharmacies 

Making these pharmacies digital helped in making them a last-mile access point for these patients. Now, the stores could convert themselves as e-clinic without any extra cost as well as get doctor consultations for patients in smaller cities and villages without patients having to necessarily travel long distances for consultations.

The advantages of Sehat Saathi is that it is an:

  1. Asset-light business model built to scale
  2. No cost of inventory and logistics; end-to-end tech enabled ecosystem
  3. State-of-the-art technology and in-house product development with minimal dependence on external vendors
  4. Completely tech and marketing oriented with no cost of operation 

How does it work?

“Currently, we are targeting 1.6 million retail medical stores. In the current ecosystem, one medical store exists for a population of 1800 throughout India. Retail pharmacies are the key clients for Sehat Sathi. We don’t charge anything from these pharmacies, and they are our brand ambassadors who recommend doctors on the platform, help build trust in the entire ecosystem to help more people start using the platform,” says Shreyans

According to Shreyans, Sehat Sathi has been designed such that it caters to all the needs to help digitise and develop the medical store business. The platform - 

  1. Connects customers to relevant stakeholders in their area to fulfill their medicine delivery orders through Aayu (partner app for consumers).
  2. Becomes an e-clinic and provides online consultation with doctors
  3. Helps these medical stores stock medicines direct from the distributors 
  4. Helps with loans for pharmacy expansion 
  5. Has several big brands like Beardo, Oziva, and Himalaya partner with the pharmacies 

Covid impact 

When several e-pharmacies were semi-operational during the peak of the pandemic, these physical pharmacies were the go-to point for everyone

“Our analysis of the situation led us to develop a platform called Sehat Sathi (Aayu partner app) which was developed for these pharmacies so they could connect with their customers residing nearby online, and deliver them medicines, and get online doctor consultation for the patients. With the help of Sehat Sathi, these pharmacies became a part of the healthcare infrastructure to provide healthcare in the fastest way possible,” says Shreyans

The product has evolved exponentially, and they now have 40,000+ pharmacies onboard in over 13 states, with all the growth organically driven. 

Team and revenue 

Shreyans and Nikhil were childhood friends who used to discuss extensively on how to improve the healthcare system , owing to their own personal experiences in inefficient healthcare services and its skewed access. 

While Shreyans came from a family of doctors, Nikhil, who lived right next to the biggest hospital in the city, was a daily witness to the plights of patients. 

Nikhil discussed this with Saida and he too agreed to having bad experiences in healthcare services in Telangana. Over a period of time, the conviction to solve this problem became stronger. 

The duo decided to act on the matter, and built a basic version of their idea, proving the need for it, and kept evolving along the way. What started this way, now stands at 150+ strong employee base. 

“We have clocked a revenue of approximately Rs 1 crore in FY’22 so far; while our focus has been majorly on building the store network first and increase their income and then charge on the additional revenue opportunities generated for them and from brand partnerships. As of date, our overall medicine sales is approximately Rs 10 to Rs 12 crore per month from our network and we have increased sales of our individual pharmacies by Rs 33,000,” says Shreyans.

Funding and future 

Sehat Saathi has raised funds from Infoedge, Waterbridge , Astarc, RVCF, US based Village Global, Earls-field, Director of PolicyBazaar, Founders of NoBroker, and Anand Chandrasekaran. Currently, healthcare providers like Fortis and many others are focussed on the supply side. The projected growth in the market, which is growing at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 23 percent, there are startups like Tattvan and Medikabazaar in the same space. 

“After Rajasthan, we are currently expanding to Uttar Pradesh. Going forward, we plan to have more than 5 million users and digitise more than half a million medical stores by 2022. We are developing an Uber-like model for doctors (doctor aggregator platform), where they can earn by consulting patients, on-demand and availability, and patients, on the other hand, will get to reach doctors at just a click of a button,” says Shreyans.

Edited by Anju Narayanan