Indian e-Health Service Adjusts to Lockdown, Meets Heavy Demand

April 7, 2020

By Gina Wilkinson

“Unpredictable is the new norm,” said Prashant Tandon, co-founder and chief executive officer of 1mg—India’s largest integrated online health platform—as his country entered the first days of a strict nationwide lockdown. The company provides a wide range of health-related products and services including medicines and lab tests for 15 million customers every month.

As COVID-19 began its global spread, Tandon and 1mg’s management team foresaw a spike in orders for medicines, hand sanitizers, and face masks, and a rush of anxious customers seeking online medical consultations.

So, when India’s prime minister announced on March 24, with just four hours’ notice, that no one could leave their homes for 21 days, the company felt they had prepared for it—as much as possible.

What they hadn’t expected though was that their frontline teams delivering essential supplies would face disruption, and it would take time before the local police officers were used to enforcing the new lockdown as desired by the government—which was to allow essential goods to be delivered seamlessly. While the intention of the enforcing officers was to do the right thing, communication gaps resulted in police on the ground having to make judgement calls on what they could permit.

The threats to staff safety forced 1mg to suspend delivery operations for a day. Online grocery platforms and other vital delivery services also brought their operations to a halt.

Prashant Tandon, co-founder and CEO of 1mg“Our staff were trying to carry out essential, government-sanctioned work, but in some cases local police did not even read the government permits our staff had, and would just push back, at times with violence,” Tandon said. “So, we got in contact immediately with the government and worked non-stop with them to solve this fast.”

The company secured official travel passes in local languages, liaised with authorities to ensure all police officers understood that 1mg’s work was classified as essential, and trained frontline staff to confidently communicate their mission and credentials. Staff were given a local point of contact available 24 hours a day to handle any problems at checkpoints.

Twenty-four hours later, 1mg was able to resume deliveries in 16 of India’s largest cities. In another 48 hours, services reached more than 100 cities. And this week the company expects to be back to covering over 20,000 postal codes across India.

Tandon said 1mg’s strong network of relationships was key to getting staff safely back to work. “It’s extremely important to build out relationships with all stakeholders in your ecosystem. Even if you don’t need it today, make sure you establish lines of communication and understand different perspectives. It’s not a one-day process.”

1mg provides a wide range of health-related products and services for 15 million customers every month.
1mg provides a wide range of health-related products and services for 15 million customers every month.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Tandon and his management team had already set up a command center. 1mg phlebotomists were all qualified to conduct in-home tests, but they were given even more stringent guidelines, extra training, and oversight to ensure health and safety for themselves and their customers, and issued extra masks, sanitizers, and safety aids.

Sanitizer use and thermal temperature screenings were mandated for anyone entering 1mg facilities, and a 24-hour helpline has doctors ready to answer any staff member’s concerns. Management speak daily with teams at the company’s 57 locations nationwide.

“This is the time when leadership is tested, and part of that is keeping your team motivated. Everyone is anxious—consumers, citizens, employees—and especially now when our workload is at its peak.”

New doctors are being recruited to deal with a massive 440-percent jump in demand for flu and fever e-consultations. “I believe that increase is the tip of the iceberg,” said Tandon.

He said the company is now shipping orders of medicines through its e-pharmacy platform and offline pharmacies, while working with partners to streamline the supply chain. The biggest problem is in areas where third-party logistics companies are not operational. “One of our priorities is to find new partners, and we’re doing that very aggressively,” he said.

More doctors are being recruited after a massive jump in demand for flu and fever e-consultations.
More doctors are being recruited after a massive jump in demand for flu and fever e-consultations.

1mg is also devising strategies to support the government’s COVID-19 testing program.

“Diagnostics are a very important part of our business. We have the biggest fleet in the country of about 450 phlebotomists in 45 cities who do testing at patient homes, and we have links with all the top laboratories. So now we are trying to figure out how 1mg infrastructure can be leveraged to fight the spread of COVID-19 through widespread home-based testing,” said Tandon.

India has been working hard to overcome the huge challenge to provide quality access to its 1.3 billion residents, especially those who live in smaller towns and in the vast rural areas. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 1mg’s services provide a lifeline for its customers. A majority of them use 1mg’s services month after month to treat chronic conditions, making it vital for 1mg to be able to make its deliveries.

1mg has also moved to help people get accurate information about COVID-19. “Dangerous misinformation was spreading faster than the virus,” said Tandon. A team of 1mg doctors helped put together a Coronavirus No-Panic Help Guide, which is being rolled out in several local languages—reflecting 1mg’s commitment to supporting underserved communities who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Tandon says that after days and nights consumed by the massive—and unpredictable—challenges posed by COVID-19, his company will be stronger when the crisis subsides.

He said the impacts of the pandemic also mark a seismic shift in health care. “We are all witnessing a new model of health care, led by patient-centric design, as 1mg has always believed to be the right way. Digitally enabled, real-time access to pharmacy, labs and doctors is going to be the new norm,” said Tandon.

“We are stepping up and meeting challenges and obstacles in real time. It’s a test and it’s a transformational stage. This is our opportunity to be gamechangers, and to change the entire health infrastructure in a lasting way, for the better.”

Published in April 2020