Let’s call them the Fantastic Four. The accolade will be well deserved once their plans come to fruition around March when more than 20,000 employees at a number of leading private companies are able to with a few taps on their smartphones get in touch with a doctor and ask those worrying questions about their [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Goodness gracious me, oDoc to revolutionise doctor-patient relationship


Left to right - Heshan Fernando, Dr. Janaka Wickramasinghe, Sohan Dharmaraja and Inshard Naizer.

Let’s call them the Fantastic Four. The accolade will be well deserved once their plans come to fruition around March when more than 20,000 employees at a number of leading private companies are able to with a few taps on their smartphones get in touch with a doctor and ask those worrying questions about their health when sick.

No more long treks to the doctor, no more spending time stuck in a traffic jam stewing with worry, no more having to take time off work for when oDoc, an App on your smartphone comes online, a quick video consultation, care and advice will be offered.

“It puts medical consultation and e-prescriptions into the palm of your hands and we are doing this by combining mobile technology and artificial intelligence with the best clinical expertise,” explains Heshan Fernando, co-founder of oDoc.

He adds: “You can basically book appointments in seconds and see a doctor whenever you want, wherever you are.”

It sounds good and perhaps a dream for hypochondriacs. But what Heshan, and fellow co-founders Sohan Dharmaraja, Dr. Janaka Wickramasinghe and Inshard Naizer, aka the Fantastic Four, are offering is a service which is set to revolutionise the way people in this country get medical treatment.

The marriage of technology and medical knowledge will be one of convenience and efficiency, and it will be just what, umm, the doctor ordered.

This start-up is nothing new. In fact we first bumped into Heshan at the Commonwealth Medical Association conference held last October in Colombo. This voice in the crowd challenged Babylon Health – a London start-up which helps people talk to a doctor through a mobile phone – and said the Sri Lankan version would be far better. It must be for they are going one better with video consultation.

“This is nothing new. It has been done for a long time in the US and UK. In America there is a similar service that already has 100,000 doctors signed on. In the UK there is another similar service where one in 200 people use it partnering with the NHS (National Health Service) itself to deliver that,” reveals Heshan, oDoc chief executive officer and spokesman for the Four.

Video consultations 

“Even the American Medical Association has done some studies and stated that up to 75 per cent of doctor visits could be handled effectively through a phone or video.”

A former student at Colombo International School, Heshan, 29, was a wheeler-dealer in real estate for John Keells when he was bitten by the start-up bug. Brimming with confidence, his first idea was to sell virgin coconut oil but then he decided to go with a plan which had been simmering at the back of his mind for some time.

His long-time friend Sohan, the techie of the team, carries on the story behind the genesis of oDoc. “We had previously tried to do something like this but in pharmaceutical delivery – a simple tap-tap on the phone and having medicine delivered to the patient. This was about two-and-a-half years ago, but technology wasn’t up to standard. Timing was wrong and we shelved the idea.”

Heshan chips in: “I’m a parent with very young kids. Like many young kids they get sick all the time and as parents what you do normally is panic, as they get sick mostly in the middle of the night.

“Your first instinct is to rush them to the hospital or you stay up with them without any sleep and take them to the doctor first thing in the morning only to be told that they will be fine and given basic medication. So after about the 100th time it happened, I thought there must be a better way,” Heshan related.

There was another trigger. About two years ago one of his closest friends went through a bout of depression. Initially Heshan found it very difficult to convince his buddy to get treatment because of the stigma attached to this misery. The immediate reaction from outsiders is that you should get on the bus to Angoda.

“He didn’t want to go to a hospital and be seen waiting outside a doctor’s waiting room which said psychiatrist. People think you’re mad and Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

“One day (in May last year) I came across the concept of tele-medicine which is the use of technology with remote health care. I thought the conditions were right for the mass implementation of this because of the current levels of smartphone penetration and Internet speeds in Sri Lanka.

Following-the-dream support from JKH 

“At that time I had already handed in my resignation to John Keells and I wanted to sell coconuts and virgin coconut oil, but thought this had much more potential. That morning itself I went and met my mentor (at JKH) Ajit Gunewardene (deputy chairman) and mentioned this idea to him and he was like “super, fantastic, just go for it”. Two days after that I gave a call to Sohan and he said he had been thinking of this same idea for a while.”

The team quickly realised they were on to something good when they devised an electronic medical record system (EMR) which enabled them to kick-start the project.

Janaka, the doctor in the bunch, explained the artificial intelligence platform which is at the heart of the whole idea: “We built an EMR platform ground up just to assist these video consultations. What this does is allows a doctor to document a consultation on the computer rather than writing notes.

“Doctors haven’t moved on to doing this because it invariably takes longer than writing something on paper. So what we have done is approach this as a design problem and not a medical or IT problem and designed something which is super-fast and easy where anyone can use it, and without needing a lot of computer knowledge.

“We have also given them additional benefits such as if the doctor enters the patient’s complaints it will automatically assist the doctor in suggesting what the different diagnoses are. So we are using AI (artificial intelligence) for that and also added features where when the doctor prescribes a certain medication, it will assist the doctor in telling them what sort of dosage they should be giving,”outlined Dr. Wickramasinghe.

It is predicted that within the next five years, video consultation will out-number physical consultations. This will benefit both doctors and patients. Doctors will have access to much more patients and not be restricted to a 10 or 25 km radius of their practice. Basically all of Sri Lanka becomes accessible to them. Geographic barriers will be broken down.

It will also give doctors a better work-life balance as they can work from home and when they want to. More importantly, doctors won’t have the hassle of overheads in running a private practice. There will be no need to hire space as they can have a virtual practice.

Revolutionary platform 

“The EMR platform will be revolutionary on its own but we did this to assist the video consultation and for doctors to document the video consultation they do,” Heshan explains.

“Basically this App can be used for conditions that don’t require physical examination and initially we are going to do general medicine. There are a lot of patients who go to a doctor every month to get a blood report read, and these people can now take a picture of their blood report and send it and do the consultation from home.

“This App will also be useful for young parents who have a million questions about their children, as well as people who want reassurance that they are not sick. It will provide them with the peace of mind knowing that a doctor is just a few taps away. Due to the privacy component of this App we hope it will have a great improvement in the treatment of medical and sexual health and the outcomes of that treatement in this country,” Heshan added.

The final pieces of the jigsaw are being put into place and oDoc will be up and running in about eight weeks’ time. They have signed on 10 companies including MAS Active, Expolanka, Hela, Akbar Brothers and Phoenix Industries, and will have a total 20,000 employees on the cards.

“In March we will have a private launch with the 10 companies. We want to test it out with them, get feedback from them as well as the doctors, improve the product and then launch it to the general public,” Heshan reveals.

And it will be affordable. A GP consultation will start at 250 rupees per appointment. “We have ambitious goals. We want to achieve the goal of all Sri Lankans living longer, happier and healthier lives by providing them on-demand access to quality primary healthcare which is universally affordable, accessible and personable. We are very excited about this,” Heshan adds.

The famous actress Sophia Loren sang “O Doctor, I’m in trouble” and her co-star Peter Sellers replied “Goodness gracious me”. His words will ring true when oDoc comes online.

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