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One hospital says telehealth has made its COVID vaccine rollout three to four times as efficient

March 5, 2021, 7:52 AM UTC

On March 24 last year, India launched the largest lockdown in history to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, issuing a universal stay-at-home order for the nation’s 1.3 billion people.

Apollo Hospitals, India’s largest private hospital network, saw its patient flow stop almost overnight. “All of a sudden, our hospitals were empty,” Apollo Hospitals executive vice chairperson Shobana Kamineni said at a Fortune Global Tech Forum virtual conversation on Thursday.

With nearly all in-person interaction off-limits, Apollo had to figure out how to treat patients remotely. Luckily for the hospital network, it had released its new 24/7 Apollo Health platform a month earlier, after a year of planning. The tool gave users access to online doctor consultations and other medical services.

“Suddenly [digital health] became a crisis and a need,” Kamineni said. “Certainly in India, [COVID-19] made it almost ubiquitous.”

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In addition to aiding patients with ailments unrelated to COVID-19, Apollo quickly created digital services that enabled patients to get prescreened virtually for COVID-19 and directed personal protective equipment and other medical resources to areas in need, Kamineni said.

Now, nearly a year later, Apollo’s software is helping make India’s vaccine rollout more efficient.

“We’ve reached out to all our [14 million] patients” on the platform, says Kamineni. “From that we were able to pick out the cohort that the government is allowing us to vaccinate [and] send them messages” to schedule appointments. She estimates that the digital health platform is making Apollo’s vaccine rollout three to four times as efficient as it would have been otherwise.

Geoff Kau, CEO of Smart Healthcare at China’s Ping An, the world’s largest digital health provider, which serves 350 million users, said that when COVID-19 hit China last February, demand for Ping An’s digital health services boomed.

“When the pandemic was still raging in China, we saw a surge in demand. I would say at least three-x growth [in users],” Kau noted. In 2020, Ping An said its Good Doctor platform managed an average of 903,000 online medical consultations per day. Kau said that China’s vaccine rollout is, for now, targeted only at certain groups and controlled by the government, but Ping An will be ready to help schedule appointments once vaccines are made more widely available.

COVID-19 brought a sense of urgency to the digital health revolution, Kau said, but the changes it accelerated are here to stay.

“A lot of the users who have come on and experience our services have continued to stay on. Now they’ve tried it, they like it, and they’re inclined to use more of it,” Kau noted.

Kamineni agreed that the world is now only scratching the surface of the possibilities in digital medicine.

“I feel like Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise that is now being launched,” Kamineni said of the explosion in digital health care. “We are on a transformational journey of learning about digital, and how we can layer digital [with in-person services] to actually scale it to what India deserves.”