The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming businesses world over. Pharmacies are no exception as many are adopting non-traditional business and operational models to play larger, value-added roles. MetroMedi, with its plans to be a one-stop, omnichannel pharmacy and health store solutions provider, is a good example. Maruthi Medisetti, CEO, MetroMedi shares more details about how this venture aims to address gaps in last-mile healthcare services in tier-two and tier-three cities, with Akanki Sharma
Elaborate on your pharmacy and healthcare solutions business model that aims to serve patients in tier-two and tier-three cities. Also, any plans to take it pan-India?
Being an omnichannel pharmacy and healthcare solutions startup, we have built a simple model so that patients in tier-two and tier-three towns don’t get overwhelmed by the technology at the front end. Our tech prowess lies at the back-end and how it works to fulfil an order in a timely manner.
The way MetroMedi works is simple – patients share their prescriptions through WhatsApp and our staff then delivers the medication to them regularly. Our primary focus is to address the gap in the last-mile healthcare services in tier-two and tier-three cities where customers don’t have multiple options like in metros; we aim to deliver health and wellness in these cities.
With the opening of two brick and mortar stores, we are looking to build the first omnichannel health store business focused on tier-two and tier-three cities. We plan to open a health store in every city where they have an online presence already. The idea is to use these health stores to develop customer loyalty, educate customers and deliver more healthcare services like health check-ups, etc. The company has also partnered with SRL Diagnostics and Doctor C to offer diagnostics. Our goal is to become a one-stop solution for all healthcare needs.
Tell us about the MetroMedi Doctor mobile application – its features, USP, effectiveness, etc. How much time did you take to develop it? Did you collaborate with anyone for this project?
We are rolling out the MetroMedi doc app on April 25, 2020, which is aimed at offering doctors’ consultation to patients in tier-two and tier-three cities.
In India, people from the tier-three and tier-four cities have to travel at least on average 60 km to visit a specialist for a consultation. This becomes a challenge if you are working on daily wages because one ends up losing the wage for that day. The current primary healthcare centres do not do a great job in these cities. They just treat every ailment with some kind of antibiotics which also leads to another problem of unnecessary use of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. Our mission is to make healthcare accessible and affordable.
The current prevailing climate and the outbreak of coronavirus in India kind of accelerated our timeline on rolling out this service. Since COVID-19 cases are being given the topmost priority, and rightly so, patients suffering from other ailments are scared to visit doctors in person and even if some are going, they are not being admitted or treated simply because there are bandwidth constraints.
Pandemics like this pose unique challenges to provide healthcare. Though telemedicine will not solve them all, it is well suited for scenarios in which medical practitioners can evaluate and manage patients.
So we want to address this situation by making available top doctors from the best hospitals from metros and tier-one cities for consultations via phone or video at half the costs they would otherwise incur.
We took two weeks to develop the app and are doing a phase-wise launch. We are launching it for a group of our customers this week. Over the next couple of weeks, we will launch it to all our customers and the general public. We plan to connect the three important stakeholders— pharmacies, doctors and patients so that right from consultation to delivery of medicines becomes a seamless process. Pharmacies will function as a nodal point for both doctors and patients and we will monitor it for smooth functioning. This approach is being undertaken to minimise any challenges that patients may face.
How many doctors/specialists will be associated with this application and how are you checking their background to comply with the ICMR guidelines for telemedicine? In what ways will this application help in dealing with the current COVID-19 crisis?
We have currently signed up more than 50 doctors and are still onboarding more doctors for various specialisations. Based on the guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), we verify a doctor’s identity and credentials by collecting information like name, age, address, email ID, phone number, registered ID or registration certificate. We are displaying the doctor credentials explicitly so that the patients are aware of the doctor’s background and experience. We also take the patient’s consent to collect their identity information for compliance.
Telemedicine practice can prevent the transmission of infectious diseases reducing the risks to both healthcare workers and patients. Unnecessary and avoidable exposure of the people involved in the delivery of healthcare can be avoided using telemedicine and it can also provide rapid access to doctors who may not be immediately available in person. We are currently on-boarding medical professionals with a minimum of 10 years’ experience. These professionals would be from multiple specialities like ENT, general medicine, paediatrics, orthopaedics, gynaecology ophthalmology and psychiatry.
Tell us about your two brick-and-mortar pharmacies that were launched in Hyderabad. How are these operating at the moment in the times of lockdown? What all precautions are the pharmacists taking?
We have the stores operating as per the guidelines of essential goods and services. All our in-house staff have been provided with masks, gloves and sanitisers. Our delivery fleet is also provided with protection kits. We allow customers or delivery executives with masks inside the store, otherwise, our staff collect the prescription from outside and handover the package. We sanitise the premises during the opening and closing hours, while also doing regular temperature checks for all the staff members.
How has COVID-19 crisis impacted the sales of medicines at these pharmacies?
In the coming few months, online pharmacies will become the new normal, there won’t be any crowded medical shops. Teleconsultation might also become the new norm. online pharmacies like MetroMedi are seeing double the demand and this will continue for the next year. The coronavirus crisis became an unanticipated trigger event that will shift consumer behaviour. The businesses that have raised more funds will survive but the businesses that have high burn and cash crunch will find it hard to raise new capital unless there is some form of business model innovation.
The traditional healthcare business took a huge hit because of measures like social distancing and lockdown and it is hard to predict when they will bounce back. Nevertheless, I believe they will bounce back stronger. Currently, everyone is trying to leverage technology as much as possible to recover the business. I can talk about on-line pharmacy and I would say the global pandemic has a multi-fold impact on on-line pharmacy in India.
Talking about supply and demand, the organic demand has increased two-fold, with the majority of demand for FMCG products, hand sanitisers, masks and essential supplements. Chronic patients are now purchasing medication for 60-90 day cycles instead of 30-day cycles. The sales might go up in the short-term but in the long-term, they will get normalised. In general, the Indian supply chain is constrained and the present stock-in-hand of the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) may be sufficient for two-to-three months to manufacture formulations according to government studies, which means the supply chain is constrained further.
The Just-in-time (JIT) inventory system is breaking across all the e-commerce industries. During this crisis, it is not working anymore. Businesses that are JIT inventory system based are now forced to stock larger quantities of Stock Keeping Units (SKUs). This means the businesses will soon be facing challenges with capital. With the increase in demand, delivery timelines are stretched. Add the current curfew by multiple state governments to curtail the spread of the virus to the mix of things, fulfilling the deliveries is getting challenging.
What’s your plan to make healthcare affordable and accessible for the daily-wage earners? Since the literacy rate is generally low among such people, how will they be aware of your services to avail the benefits of teleconsultation and medication?
Firstly, we are launching our app in regional languages. This will happen over the next month. Secondly, the doctors we are onboarding will speak the regional languages. In this way, we are not only catering to the educated or urban population but all segments of the population. We are planning to launch it via the platforms like TikTok, Twitter and Instagram by partnering with some celebrities who have a better reach to the population.
The service will be at a bare minimum cost for daily wage workers and we are offering discounts as a part of the launch and to support the community at large during this pandemic.
Have you received any aid from Biotechnology Industrial Research Assistance Council (BIRAC)? If yes, kindly elaborate. If not, do you plan to avail the same by participating in any of the challenges?
No, but we would love to explore these kinds of programmes for sure.
How do you fight the challenge of counterfeit medicines?
We work with trusted partners. With our 10 years of experience in retail pharmacy, we have developed relationships with the top three distributors of every city that we are operational in. We also make sure that our supply chain has branded medicines that are compliant with drug standards.