DoctorOnCall: Championing digital healthcare during the pandemic

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 28, 2020 - January 10, 2021.

"We live in a world where you can easily search for an available room in a hotel in Bali at any given time but not which doctor has an available slot in the clinic down the road.” - Maran

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While other companies are struggling as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, digital healthcare platform DoctorOnCall is actually thriving. The platform provides online medical consultation, delivers medication through its online pharmacy, hosts a medical specialist search and booking engine and features health articles and a medical information database, among other things.

In February this year, just before the Movement Control Order was announced, it partnered with the Ministry of Health (MoH) to establish a virtual health advisory portal to help address Covid-19’s risk communication needs. This portal is still available at www.moh.gov.my and www.doctoroncall.com.my/coronavirus.

Through the portal, users are able to quickly see if they have contracted the Covid-19 virus by answering a series of online questions, or alternatively, consult a specialist through the platform for free, reducing the need to physically seek medical advice at a clinic or hospital.

Maran Virumandi, founder and man­aging director of DoctorOnCall, tells Digital Edge that although this partnership is a non-profit initiative, it has helped push forward the nation’s digital health agenda.

“When we received the call from the MoH and health director-general’s office, we said that we were happy to provide our services for free for the sake of national service and corporate social responsibility (CSR),” says Maran.

“So, we invested hundreds of thousands to offer this technology for doctors to use and service a large group of people. It was then that the public started to understand the benefits of digital health platforms. If they display symptoms, they can easily consult the doctor from their homes and maybe even obtain a probable diagnosis.

“From there, we have sent a signal to the medical industry of the potential and opportunities digital health platforms have presented. The players who were at the sidelines, such as the labs, the hospitals and the nursing homes, have started to take notice, and we then open up our platform to them.”

Amid the pandemic, DoctorOnCall managed to double its online medical consultations to more than 200,000 in October from about 100,000 in March. Its monthly page views have also more than quadrupled to 4.1 million throughout the same period.

Maran says the contract awarded by the government only extends to the first wave of the pandemic and has come to an end, so the company is no longer the government’s official partner.

However, DoctorOnCall has enrolled in the National Technology & Innovation Sandbox (NTIS), an initiative by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) to allow products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms to be tested in a live environment, with relaxed processes and regulatory requirements.

“For DoctorOnCall, there is no legislation right now that directly governs the digital health industry, from medication dispensation and delivery to display advertising. Through NTIS, the government allows us to test our products and business models in a safe, responsible manner,” Maran observes.

Outside of establishing a virtual health advisory portal, the company also provides Covid-19 testing services, allowing users to book a slot at the closest clinic to have themselves tested, conduct drive-through testing at the closest clinic, or even book an appointment for a specialised team to visit their homes to collect test samples.

Despite launching these Covid-19 related initiatives, Maran explains that much of his team’s effort was spent on on-boarding more partners, expanding the network of clinics, specialists, pharmacies, pharmaceutical companies and labs. They also focused on empowering and enabling users to request healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, to conduct home visits.

DoctorOnCall has also captured the attention of insurance providers, with insurer Zurich Malaysia launching a campaign to provide free annual subscriptions to DoctorOnCall and e-pharmacy vouchers to customers who sign up for some of their insurance products.

Maran adds that although 2020 has been mired in the pandemic, the platform is trying to fix a digital health problem and not a Covid-19 problem. Thus, he has focused his efforts on expanding the entire digital health ecosystem instead of on the pandemic alone.

“Even prior to the pandemic, there was the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and the ageing population. We live in a world where you can easily search for an available room in a hotel in Bali at any given time but not which doctor has an available slot in the clinic down the road,” says Maran.

“Before the pandemic, the incumbent players were not convinced that healthcare could go digital. They thought it would be difficult for medication to be delivered and to have consultations and book services through a centralised online platform. But the pandemic has changed that perception.”

“Clinics and hospitals are now starting to recognise that if they are not going to adapt to the digital age, they will have their business slashed, not just by DoctorOnCall, but also by the clinic or hospital next door that has gone digital.

“I believe that digitalisation is going to be a trend across 2021, or at least the first half of the year as there is a lot of latent capacity that can be mopped digitally.”

Despite the rapid growth witnessed this year, DoctorOnCall has no plans to rest on its laurels. It intends to introduce new initiatives next year, during the expected recovery phase of Covid-19.

One of its key initiatives is to launch an artificial intelligence (AI) solution that is able to help users identify illnesses based on their current symptoms. The system will function in a similar way to the current Covid-19 symptom checker, but with an expanded scope which will include other diseases as well, particularly for NCDs.

According to the latest National Health and Morbidity Survey, one in every five Malaysian adults suffers from diabetes, one third have high blood pressure, and two in five suffer from high blood cholesterol. To make matters worse, more than half of these patients are unaware of their conditions.

“These patients walk around with headaches or have trouble sleeping. Many of them attribute it to old age, but some of them are displaying these symptoms at 35,” says Maran.

“So now, you have potentially millions of Malaysians with undiagnosed chronic conditions. It is important to have a simple, straightforward symptom checker that helps them bridge the knowledge gap.”

However, implementing such a feature requires a lot of complexity at the back-end. Maran points out that many clinics and hospitals in Malaysia still use legacy systems, keying and submitting patient data manually using pen and paper. Thus, it is difficult to feed the AI machine learning algorithm with high-quality data to generate an accurate diagnosis.

Because of this, DoctorOnCall has spent time and effort expanding its digital health ecosystem and collecting data from the integrated health exchange, which includes online forum questions, patient history, doctors’ notes, and prescriptions information, all of which are essential in driving the next wave of advanced digital solutions.

“We are building this system from scratch because the idea of collecting data from third parties, cleaning and sorting it, would be a lengthy and costly exercise,” says Maran,

“We are now pulling in data quickly and preparing ourselves for the next stage of use cases for AI. We believe that in the next 12 months, we will be able to quadruple the number of partners and witness a jump in the number of public uses of our services, with potentially millions of data points to be collected to drive innovation.”