JAKARTA: As soon as Indonesia announced its first two COVID-19 cases on Mar 2, hundreds of thousands of people began flocking to online healthcare platform Halodoc with COVID-19-related questions.
Its CEO Jonathan Sudharta recalled a severe bottleneck on its system, as doctors on the platform struggled to respond to the surge of queries.
“A lot of people were panicking. Many were wondering if they had COVID-19. Many were wondering if they were at risk,” he told CNA.
“But our system was not built to deal with a pandemic. It was not built to deal with such a sudden surge. We have 22,000 doctors on our platform but if a million people came at once, there would be severe problems. So we had to work fast.”
Mr Sudharta and his team rushed to put out a special COVID-19 section on Halodoc’s website and mobile app, which they completed in just 36 hours.
Noticing that most people who came to the platform were asking the same general questions about the disease, they quickly trained the system's artificial intelligence chatbot to respond to FAQ on COVID-19. This has taken pressure off the doctors.
Since March, 7.2 million users had accessed Halodoc’s COVID-19 special feature, while mobile app downloads had increased by 300 per cent.
Halodoc, which was founded in 2016, is one of the 12 online healthcare platforms working with the Indonesian government since the pandemic hit.
Indonesians are encouraged to seek online consultation on these platforms to reduce trips to the medical facilities.
Business has been booming, Mr Sudharta said. Its main competitor, Alodokter, also reported a 50 per cent increase in the number of active users.
TELEMEDICINE SERVICES MAKE HEALTHCARE ACCESSIBLE
According to findings by the World Health Organization in 2017, Indonesia only has four doctors and 12 hospital beds for every 10,000 people. The vast archipelago of 17,000 islands has a population of 273 million.
By comparison, Singapore has six times more doctors and nearly twice the number of hospital beds per 10,000 people that same year. Thailand, meanwhile, has about twice more doctors and hospital beds than Indonesia.
It is not uncommon for Indonesians to spend hours at a hospital just to see a doctor for a few minutes and then wait hours more to get their prescribed medicine.
With telemedicine platforms, users can speak to doctors online and book hospital appointments afterwards, if the medical practitioners think they need to be diagnosed further. Users can also buy medicine through these services and have them delivered by motorcycle in a matter of minutes.
These functions became more relevant when the pandemic hit Indonesia in March.
“Since people are afraid of going out of their homes and go to a hospital, we are seeing more and more people looking to access healthcare remotely,” Alodokter CEO Nathanael Faibis told CNA.
But to cope with the overwhelming number of people looking to find answers on COVID-19-related issues, Halodoc and Alodokter found themselves rushing to find experts on the disease.
Three days after the first cases were announced, Halodoc staged an online seminar to keep the general practitioners and pulmonologists on its platform up to date with COVID-19.
Alodokter also hosted a webinar soon after.
Meanwhile, the government was concerned that hospitals would be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, who might spread the disease to regular patients.
“(The government and telemedicine platforms) immediately got together to discuss how we can help. (Indonesia) don’t have enough hospitals, we don’t have enough beds. At the same time, 80 per cent of patients can actually be treated at home. This is how telemedicine can help,” Mr Sudharta said.
HELPING IN THE BATTLE AGAINST COVID-19
COVID-19 task force spokesman Achmad Yurianto told CNA the government decided to engage telemedicine providers so people can cut down on their trips to hospitals and clinics. This way they can stay at home and practise physical distancing.
“We also want telemedicine providers to promote healthy lifestyles, provide people with accurate information about COVID-19 and dispel the many myths and hoaxes surrounding the disease,” he said.
Alodokter's Mr Faibis said his platform has 1,000 doctors who are trained to answer COVID-19-related questions.
“All people across Indonesia who have tested positive can seek consultation with our doctors for free on our platform. We have a team of doctors to specifically deal with COVID-19 patients. They will have access to our doctors 24/7,” he said.
Other users can speak to doctors on the platform to see whether the symptoms they are having point to a possible COVID-19 infection.
They can then schedule an appointment to get tested for COVID-19 at one of the 1,300 hospitals the platform is cooperating with.
Meanwhile, Halodoc is dedicating 600 doctors to deal specifically with COVID-19-related queries and provide scheduled consultations to people who were told to self-isolate.
The platform is also providing its users the option of taking rapid tests at one of its 10 drive-thru locations in the cities of Jakarta and Surabaya in East Java.
“We have also provided 70,000 rapid tests for free,” Mr Sudharta said.
Platforms like Halodoc and Alodokter charge a fee of up to 50,000 rupiah (US$3.54) per consultation. They also receive commissions on drug sales, lab tests and hospital referrals.
Mr Sudharta said Halodoc’s revenue has increased by more than 700 per cent over the last three months, while its monthly active users increased from around 7 million before the pandemic to 22 million today.
“Our growth has been exponential,” he said.
Meanwhile, Alodokter is also seeing an increased demand for online consultations as well as the health insurance programmes the platform has been providing since 2018.
Although refusing to disclose how much his company’s revenue has grown, Mr Faibis said his platform is now seeing 30 million monthly active users, compared to around 20 million before the pandemic began.
“We are seeing a large increase in demand for telemedicine so much that we have to increase our capacity to match with the (rising) demand. We have been recruiting more doctors and we found ourselves having to do that very fast.”
Mr Faibis said Indonesia has always been a good market for telemedicine companies as many people in the vast archipelago struggle for access to adequate healthcare.
“When I started the company, I realised that people in Indonesia were going online to search for medical information because they don’t have access to medical services or simply don’t have time to do consultation with real doctors,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Sudharta said Halodoc is starting to see a more diverse demographic composition in its users, particularly with the government actively telling people to stay at home and use telemedicine for minor illnesses.
“Because of the pandemic, we are seeing more and more people using telemedicine services for the first time and enjoying the conveniences that we have to offer,” he said.
“Take my uncle for example, he’s 70 years old and before the pandemic he had always been afraid to try new things and new technologies. And now, he has used my platform to make four consultation sessions with orthopedic doctors and dermatologists.”