Q: The Indian diagnostics industry has been in the spotlight since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now as we enter the last quarter of FY20-21 how has been the business recovery for SRL?
Anand: The pandemic has undoubtedly exposed the truth of our fragile healthcare system which was underprepared to detect, respond and mitigate the virus at its nascent stage. However, it even successfully became a catalyst for change – a defining moment for all of us in healthcare to re-imagine the future of healthcare. The year 2020 has tested the resilience of the Indian healthcare industry in bringing innovations to market quickly. It won’t be wrong to say that we’ve made a decade of progress in just a year.
As the nation underwent a lockdown in March 2020, the diagnostic industry faced a massive decline in the B2C business, given the walk-ins fell drastically. This combined with restrictions on elective and OPD services at hospitals and clinics affected healthcare B2B business majorly in Q1 as well. However, we gained momentum in Q2 and were able to reach our pre-Covid numbers for our non-Covid business by October. During the lockdown, healthcare delivery options like home collection, drive through testing sites, mobile van for COVID sample collection, telemedicine and telehealth services stepped up and gained momentum in preventing, diagnosing, treating, and controlling diseases. COVID has also put diagnostics in the spotlight and highlighted the necessity for well-equipped and qualitative testing capabilities.
People have started to realize the significance of molecular/ genetic testing and hence this has resulted in augmented investments, largely by private labs. At SRL we have expanded our COVID testing capacity significantly, with RT-PCR labs and centres opening across lengths and breaths of the country. So far, we have opened 12 RT-PCR facilities across the country. In Kerala, we have got two labs in Cochin and Trivandrum and now we are planning to start one shortly in Calicut as well. We have opened two labs in Mumbai, one each in Gurgaon, Ludhiana, Raipur, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata. In addition to this, we are catering to rural and tribal areas like Deoghar and Jharkhand and we will soon be launching a lab in Guwahati to provide better accessibility for northeast states. With all of this, we are optimistic that our FY 20-21 revenues will be similar to last year, and FY 21-22 will not be impacted by the COVID crisis.
Q: How did SRL leverage technology to overcome the challenges caused by the Covid pandemic?
Anand: Diagnostics is the first step to disease management and is the foremost step towards curing any disease. While it does the job via the same methods as it did for the last so many years, the methods are evolving for a better and accurate diagnosis. Slowly but surely, diagnostics is going digital. Digitalization in diagnostics is transforming the job of pathologists into a more creative and data-driven one while helping to receive diagnoses faster and with higher accuracy in a time-effective manner.
We are using AI tools to improve customer experience. We have recently launched ChatBot to automate and expand our customer support team to respond to simple queries like rescheduling, order status, etc., thereby mitigating patient anxiety. This has even helped us in maintaining rapid proactive communication with our customers. We also launched Covid Risk assessment tool on our website, which is a set of solutions designed to help patients quickly identify coronavirus symptoms. We also introduced Whatsapp for Business to share test reports, which has been useful in reducing patients’ waiting time and provide information on the go.
The pandemic has also made every sector realize the need for employee safety and healthcare is no exception to it. While patient safety is of utmost importance to us, we have never considered the safety of our employees any less. Hence, we proposed to our pathologists, oncologists, and technicians an option to work from home and established Digital Pathology labs in our reference laboratories in Gurgaon, Mumbai and Bangalore. These Digital Pathology labs allow technicians and lab doctors to read images remotely, enabling real-time virtual collaboration between their multi-disciplinary care teams. Remote reviewing of pathological cases is also essential to prevent delay in critical patient diagnosis and care, particularly during a crisis and our association with Microsoft will also pave the way to this transformation further.
With the growing relevance of connected devices, IoT and wearables, a new era of self-monitoring has ushered in. Easy to use medical equipments for self-diagnosis like a sugar, BP monitor, oximeter etc and AI technologies has widened and enhanced the role of diagnosis drastically and SRL is continuously adapting and evolving to serve the shifting needs of consumers.
Q: With changing consumer preferences and awareness towards preventive healthcare, what according to you will be the drivers of growth for the Indian diagnostics industry?
Anand: Digital technologies are pushing the sector into becoming more efficient and more scalable. With tech-enabled platforms coming in to provide ease in day-to-day life issues and also provide better service in the on-demand space, things have really changed in the recent past. There is a growing trend where people are booking tests online and thereby bringing diagnostics at home. The sector is moving towards digitization, which means transforming the job of pathologists into a more creative and data-driven one while it is allowing patients to receive diagnoses faster and with higher accuracy. Many of the recent innovations in diagnostics, from pre-analytical automation to automated modular systems in the analytical phase to use of cloud and smart reports in the post-analytical phase, are aimed at reducing turnaround times and laboratory errors.
Another area which will bring in one of the biggest revolution in diagnostics space will be digital pathology, it will be the key tool to address healthcare challenges. An AI system can effectively reduce the subjectivity to screening digital pathology slides and can also link up to a Big Data system to find out references to similar cases reported in any part of the world. With an aim to keep moving towards the same, we launched the second phase of our AI solution development engagement with Microsoft Global. The second phase will delve into AI models in Histopathology, majorly focusing on Breast, Colorectal, and Prostate Cancers, while the first phase focused on AI models in Cytology and yielded an algorithm for screening of liquid-based cytology slides for Cervical Cancer.
Additionally, genomic testing has ushered in a new period in medicine triggering a medical revolution that is evidence-based whereby medicine is personalized, predictive, preventive, and participatory, which is rooted in the human genome project thus impacting current clinical practice.
Q: What are your expectations from the BUDGET 21-22?
Anand: The pandemic has reinstated the fact that, the government needs substantial investments in funding researches on infectious diseases and strengthening the capabilities of relevant institutions. Avian flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola, etc., are a clear example of the warning signals that the governments worldwide have ignored this segment for a long time, and now with bacterial infections becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, common infections can potentially become life-threatening in the future. To achieve this, it will be pivotal for the government to join hands with private sector, while re-directing their focus on life science, healthcare and diagnostics. The healthcare policies need to take into account the entire value chain of healthcare – prevention of diseases, treatment and health insurance, to achieve the goal of universal health coverage.