When Dr. Vidya Neelkant got married and moved to the city, after four years working in a rural hospital in India, her former patients in the villages were so desperate for health care that they kept calling to ask for medical advice over the phone.
Physicians are scarce in India – the country has less than one doctor per 1,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, compared with 2.5 in the U.S. and 3.3 per 1,000 in Australia. So Neelkant was mindful of the need and thrilled when she heard about RingMD, which connects doctors and patients through an app that provides online video consultations, allowing users to speak with medical professionals and exchange medical files, anytime and from anywhere.
After just three months of offering her services on the platform, she raves about the good work she’s been able to do. She spends most of her time helping women with health matters they might otherwise never have gotten checked out due to cultural taboos and patriarchy.
“Women in India don’t like to see male doctors, and they often live so far away from a hospital that they don’t get the care they need, especially when they’re pregnant,” Neelkant said. “It’s so good that I can help them have healthier pregnancies now and advise them on things like diet, hygiene and how much to work. A mother’s health is very important for her baby, yet not everyone is getting this care, especially in the rural areas.”
RingMD was founded three years ago by Justin Fulcher, an American entrepreneur who was moved during a trip to Indonesia where he saw a man drinking water he’d scooped from the ground. Fulcher noticed the man’s mobile phone and wondered if technology might be able to help fill the obvious gap in health care. His Singapore-based startup now operates in nine languages across 10 countries, including India, Pakistan and Thailand. The RingMD platform connects doctors not only to rural patients but also to city dwellers around the world, who don’t have time to go to clinics and wait for appointments.
“We’ve helped thousands of people in Pakistan and elsewhere speak to a doctor for the first time in their lives,” Fulcher said. “We’re working in many areas that are conflict-stricken and in poverty. Based on the number of people we’ve helped, we’re bigger than many hospital groups, and yet we’re helping governments deliver health care at a tenth of the cost, through digital solutions.”
The company partnered with the government of India to provide health care services through 250,000 Common Service Centres, or CSCs, in villages around the country. Implemented with the “Digital India” project, RingMD provides a gateway to health care for India’s 880 million rural residents, Fulcher said.
RingMD offers tailored solutions to each market it works in, and it developed a separate platform for Digital India to provide in-country servers and additional payment options, such as bank transfers. RingMD’s platform is hosted in the Microsoft Cloud, so it can scale quickly without the additional cost or infrastructure challenges faced by traditional health care systems that would need to build clinics and move staff in order to expand.
Priyanka Bali, who operates a CSC that covers five villages in the foothills of the Himalayas, said the people in her rural area used to rely on a local pharmacist to give them medications, even though he wasn’t qualified to diagnose their ailments. That was easier than spending a half day traveling to and from the nearest hospital by bus, but it often resulted in misdiagnoses, she said.
Since November, villagers there have had immediate access to doctors and specialists through RingMD’s platform. Bali’s center offers patients some privacy for their appointments, providing a computer in a curtained-off area in the back. Bali said she tried it herself first. She set up an appointment for a rash that she was able to show to a doctor through the webcam and then provide close-up photos of in a message over the app. The consultation and treatment went so well that she sought out a pediatrician on RingMD soon afterward, to ask about her daughter’s fever.
The service is gaining the same acceptance among villagers, Bali said, who are not only spreading the word but are coming back for more medical advice themselves.
“Even people who hadn’t used computers before responded well to it, because it’s so easy,” Bali said. “The beauty was that the doctors were able to communicate in the local, regional language. So a connection was formed between the doctor and the patient, because they’re both speaking Hindi.”
RingMD’s app detects each user’s location based on the IP address of their smartphone, tablet or computer and then shows which doctors are closest. The sister platform, RingWell, connects users to non-medical providers, such as mental health professionals, counselors and nutritionists.
Payment can be made electronically through the app or in-person at centers, for those who don’t have credit cards. Doctors and wellness professionals using the RingMD marketplace set their own prices, so fees vary. Medical consultations in lower-income countries such as the Philippines and India cost less than $10, whereas the global average for an appointment with a counselor or therapist on the platform is about $100.
RingMD doesn’t disclose specific numbers, but Neelkant is one of tens of thousands of doctors offering services on the platform to hundreds of thousands of users. She said she works four hours a day, seeing eight to 15 patients each shift via video from her home in Vijayawada, a city of more than a million. She helps women from all over India who are suffering from ailments such as backaches, joint pain, acid reflux, menopause symptoms, osteoporosis and more, prescribing medications and treatments or sending them to the nearest hospital for anything she can’t figure out from the symptoms alone.
RingMD is also working with big data to develop predictive analytics for health care, Fulcher said, using machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and complex algorithms to provide patients with tailored health recommendations. AI and chatbot technologies are being developed to help doctors improve the speed and accuracy of diagnoses. And the company is working on ways to help people avoid getting sick or needing a doctor altogether, by better monitoring their health symptoms.
RingMD’s accessibility enhances the continuity of care for both rural and urban patients, Fulcher said, because people are more willing to hop on a video chat for a follow-up appointment that doesn’t require physical touch or tests than to bother going in for a clinic visit.
“We’re doing a lot in elderly care, mental health support and helping pregnant women get more regular advice and checkups from their doctors,” he said. “In rural areas, we’re connecting the unconnected, and for urban populations, we offer time savings, cost savings and convenience.”
Top photo: An elderly patient learns how to use the RingMD app for the first time. (Photo courtesy of RingMD)