How social enterprises in the health sector have adapted to the pandemic

Archana Sinha, Co-founder and CEO of Nourishing Schools Foundation writes about how the pandemic has spurred changes in the way social enterprises operate.

How social enterprises in the health sector have adapted to the pandemic

Thursday June 03, 2021,

6 min Read

The pandemic has unleashed a time of upheaval for everyone, particularly those in the health sector. Social enterprises in the sector have seen the pandemic become a catalyst for change, some of which was long overdue. As the saying goes, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new." Here are some ways how social enterprises in the health sector have adapted to the pandemic:

1. Discovering new channels for reaching communities

Kumar Shailabh, Founder and Secretary of Uplift Mutuals, an organisation focused on community mutual health microinsurance shares, “Our work deals with insurance for low-income groups, primarily in urban areas. Before the pandemic, we would get doctors to provide cashless out-patient medical services, organise specialty-health screenings and conduct wellness classes for our members living in slums. This helped ensure that our members could access preventive health care and primary healthcare easily. With the pandemic and with the lockdown last year, we had to stop these services. As a result, calls to our helpline increased as community members reached out to us for support. We also started reaching out proactively to customers; between May and July 2020, we made over 5000 calls to customers to check in on them. We also tapped our network of doctors to provide telemedicine services, an option we had not offered in the past. Over time, we noticed a change in members’ attitudes about calling doctors on the phone. They didn’t consider doing video calls with doctors in the past but now they are willing to do it, for themselves and their children”.

This is reflective of the national trend in telemedicine. According to a recent report, some of India’s top telemedicine platforms saw a 3x-4x jump in patients since the pandemic began.

Varun Rangarajan, Director of Implementation of Aurora Health Innovations, an organisation focused on providing preventive healthcare education to families of hospital patients reflects, “Before the pandemic, we used to work with nurses, training them on how to help families learn to take care of patients. They would then create a classroom-type gathering of families in hospitals and use our materials for their sessions. When the pandemic was declared, nurses from various departments were deployed for COVID-care and we had to explore alternative means to reach families. Over the past year, we developed content in more than 12 Indian languages for community radio stations, social media campaigns by government departments and for IVR helplines run by other organisations such as microfinance organisations and farmer networks. Through the content created by our team, we sought to educate people on topics related to preventing the spread of COVID-19 such as the reasons for wearing masks and the benefits of vaccines."

2. Framing mental health as a universal issue

Recognising that the pandemic’s impact on mental health needs to be addressed, the WHO’s Executive Board recently encouraged member states to integrate mental health into the preparedness and response plans for public health emergencies. Jo Aggarwal, Founder & CEO of Wysa, an organisation that’s developed an AI-enabled Life Coach for mental and emotional wellness, states, “There is a missing middle in addressing mental health, between what we call meditation and medicalisation ie between wellness practices and clinical solutions. We believe that this is due to a skilling issue - people need to develop skills such as managing anxiety and negative self-talk, depersonalising one’s stressors etc. – which was evident even before the pandemic. The pandemic helped bring such issues to the fore and we started putting out data to highlight this missing middle. As a result, corporates that would have taken years to see the importance of addressing mental needs of their employees began approaching us and asking for solutions. We were thus able to engage people at scale. Further, last year, the Government of Singapore’s MOH Office for Healthcare Transformation (MOHT) launched mindline, a service to help Singaporeans seek mental health support during the pandemic. Our AI chatbot was integrated with this service, allowing users to share their emotions with the bot and receive suggestions on managing their mental health.”

Addressing mental health is often also about ensuring that essential services aren’t disrupted. Chris Underhill, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Carers Worldwide, which works with unpaid family carers, notes “In terms of mental health, what reassures people is to know that services will continue to be provided during the pandemic. There is nothing braver than carrying on your health or medical service in a COVID-ready environment and ignoring the urge to do something specific for the pandemic as that may not help. At Carers Worldwide, their partners in India made a tremendous effort to be COVID-reassuring and to continue to work with their network of carers, mostly women.”

Chris and Jo also highlight that the pandemic has helped people realise that even small actions such as following a routine and talking to someone to process one’s thoughts can help one take charge of one’s mental health.

3. Creating a culture of learning

In a way, the pandemic has spurred entrepreneurs to think about how they can “future-proof” their organisation: After the 2008 financial crisis, banks have often been required to conduct “stress tests”, wherein they conduct an analysis under hypothetical scenarios to measure their resilience to adverse situations such as a financial crisis or a severe recession. The pandemic has been a real-world stress test for the global economy, prompting many entrepreneurs to introspect about how their organisations are prepared to handle external shocks. In the examples given above, the pandemic has prompted organisations to discover new markets, processes or strategies. In my organisation’s case, the pandemic made us realise that if we don’t prepare for disruptions, we are bound to get stuck playing catch-up every time. For example, we had been hearing about the applications of artificial intelligence in the field of data science but hadn’t explored how this could strengthen our impact assessment process. Over the past few months, we have been speaking with various experts in the field to understand how social sector organisations have been applying artificial intelligence for social good projects. We are now exploring ways to integrate this into our work and it has been a steep learning curve for the team. Various entrepreneurs whom I spoke with shared similar experiences – their teams had to learn new skills in a few months and explore areas outside their core competencies. They’ve often reached out to other organisations, who are more experienced in dealing with certain challenges, and collaborated with them to learn how to do the same.

In light of the points mentioned above, we must also be cognizant of the challenges that remain. To name a few – telemedicine still has a long way to go before enabling access to health for everyone, it is difficult to measure the impact of changes made in such a rapidly evolving environment and the second wave has hit many organisations (and their people) hard. Over the next several months, organisations will continue to focus on what they can control and do their best to adapt to the pandemic.

Edited by Anju Narayanan

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)