Just what the patient ordered

Your doctor is now a call away on a cellphone app: he can diagnose you, e-mail you an MC and send your medicines to you.

IMAGINE seeing a doctor via a video call, getting an electronic medical certification (e-MC) sent to your inbox, and your medication delivered to your doorstep - all without having to leave your home.

This is now a reality with telehealth startup Doctor Anywhere's mobile app that allows care-seekers to connect with Singapore-registered doctors instantly.

With on-demand healthcare just a few clicks away, individuals who are unwell can continue to rest at home instead of waiting for hours in a clinic for minor ailments.

"For the longest time, we have been restricted to physical visits. But for some healthcare issues, you don't need a doctor to be onsite," said founder and CEO Lim Wai Mun.

Co-founder Jeffrey Fang describes the concept as a timely one that reflects how the world operates now. "Everyone is looking for convenience and the ability to pool services… It's healthcare on demand."

Mr Lim and Mr Fang - both former executives at state investor Temasek Holdings - are neither doctors nor tech guys. But they decided to take the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship after seeing a gap in the accessibility of healthcare.

Plugging away

The idea for the startup came to Mr Lim in 2015, when he saw how low-income elderly people had trouble making it to doctors' appointments for chronic illnesses.

For the next one and a half years, he worked on ideas for the app late at night, while maintaining his full-time job. Despite his hectic schedule and "getting cheated a couple of times", he refused to give up.

Mr Fang joked that by the time Mr Lim roped him in as a business partner in 2016, he had written up to 390 pages of how the app would flow.

The duo declined to reveal the exact amount of their investment, but said they pumped in "hundreds of thousands" of their own money into the startup.

The app is also backed by several prominent investors, such as Patrick Chong, CEO and chairman of Lux Asia; and Fiona Bartholomeusz, managing director of Formul8, one of Singapore's largest homegrown advertising agencies.

Launched in October 2017, the app now has over 6,000 users and more than 30 doctors on the platform.

For a flat fee of S$20 per consultation with medicines charged separately, it even offers free delivery of medication to patients within a 3-hour timeframe.

But while the business model appears to disrupt the healthcare sector, Mr Lim said this is not their intention. Far from replacing an in-person visit, he stressed that it was about supporting the current system by creating more options for those who are unwell.

In addition, not every ailment is suitable for video calls. For example, the app lists indicators that are considered red flags, such as shortness of breath or chest pains. In such cases, individuals are advised to see a doctor in person right away.

"When we started building this, it was from a consumer standpoint. It started off as medical care, but as we talked to more people, we found out that there's a lot more demand for other areas of healthcare," said Mr Lim.

The startup then began to explore other health and wellness sectors aside from the general practitioner (GP) service.

One particular need came from new mothers who have issues breastfeeding. In February this year, Doctor Anywhere launched its online lactation consultation service.

Mothers seeking nursing advice can call a lactation consultant - certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultants and practising medical doctors - through the app, where they are charged a flat fee of S$10 for a 10-minute consultation.

Even though the app has been launched for only a few months, Mr Lim joked that the entrepreneurial journey seemed far longer.

First, the app hit several road bumps at the start as there were several bugs - such as calls that could not connect. The app became stable only at the start of the year, he said. But aside from technical issues, it is the change in mindsets that is proving harder to crack.

"We are still at the beginning, but it feels like a long journey because a lot of education needs to be done. Before people get on the app, they need to know what this is all about."

He said the biggest challenge the team faces is educating the entire ecosystem: the public, healthcare providers, and even employers. Telehealth is still a new concept in Singapore, with many unaware of its parameters and what it can do.

"There are some doctors more progressive than others. They are the ones willing to try out. We have learnt to be very thick-skinned… there's no easy way around it."

In the beginning, both of them went from clinic to clinic to get doctors on board, but faced many rejections. They also gave out flyers at roadshows to explain the business.

Even today, the entire team - 14 and growing - takes turns delivering medicines and rotating weekend shifts to ensure that everyone knows how the business is being run and what is happening on the ground.

Reaching out to employers to educate them about telehealth and e-MCs is the final bit of the puzzle as many companies still lack awareness of such concepts.

Early adopters

"When we talk to HR, we always tell them we are not trying to replace the healthcare system, we are complementing it. In some cases, this could improve employees' welfare," said Mr Fang.

But he said that they have come to accept that for every new service, there will be early adopters and late adopters. Their focus is on these early adopters, and hopefully when these are successful, will pave the way for other companies to follow.

For now, their priorities are in three main areas: nurturing their current users and growing their base; working with regulators such as the Ministry of Health (MOH); and building the team.

One new service to be launched soon on their app will focus on mental wellness, said Mr Lim. They see this as an increasing need in today's high-pressure environment.

"Seeking care from mental wellness professionals through telehealth provides a level of discretion as well as convenience for those who seek such advice," said Mr Lim.

This service will be among several others to be rolled out in the next few months.

Looking further ahead, the team is keen to explore different geographies once they are ready.

"In Singapore, it's about convenience and affordability. It's still a want, not a need. In other countries where there are geographical limitations, it's a need," said Mr Lim.