Bored with the daily grind of being a practising physician in the US, Harshit Jain decided to take a year-long sabbatical 14 years ago. To his parents’ dismay, their child after studying for almost a decade to become a doctor was never to return to his regular job. Instead Jain found his calling in becoming an entrepreneur. In 2007, he founded a start-up named Altruista Health that used data from insurance companies to assess their clients’ risk, and to help them stay healthy. For example, alerts would be sent to diabetics to remind them of their tri-monthly check-ups. These interventions could reduce the frequency of illnesses and hospital admissions for the insured, and thus increase the RoI for insurance companies.
The start-up was doing well when Jain had to return to India for personal reasons. He sold the business to Capricorn Health Advisors in 2015. A year later, he also sold a second venture he had started in India in 2009, in healthcare PR, to A.D.A.M. Ebix. Then, he joined McCann Health as the MD for their India business.
As their innovation and engagement lead, he travelled across countries to grow the New York-headquartered, healthcare-marketing firm’s business. He was getting a ringside view of the working of the top pharma companies of the world. He realised that, while the rest of the world was moving to digital advertising, the pharma companies were not able to. Those companies, who were not allowed to sell directly to customers but only through doctors, were still sending their medical reps to meet doctors, and crowding the consulting room tables with paperweights and clocks bearing the company’s logo. So, Jain and his colleague Daleep Manhas realised they were staring at a golden opportunity.
They co-founded Doceree and, in 2019, both of them quit their jobs to focus full-time on their start-up. Doceree gets its name from the Latin word ‘docere’, which means to teach, and which is also the source word for the English word ‘doctor’. “It is a good conversation starter each time we approach a client,” quips Jain. Over 18 months, working from New Jersey and Delhi, they developed back-end technology for better-targeted, more dynamic advertising for pharmaceutical companies. The founders have since patented their technology, known as Espyian.
What they do, essentially, is partner with medical publishing, physician-networking platforms and electronic health record systems; track the doctors who log into them; and, based on the doctor’s usage, stream of medicine and so on, show him or her relevant adverts. Simply put, Doceree cuts the clutter by completely managing and avoiding “dentists seeing ads meant for a general physician”. Jain adds that they do not get any patient data, only the number of prescriptions mentioning a brand.
The start-up has tied-up with 35 platforms in India and 100 others globally, such as Mfine, Medscape, Curofy, Docplexus and Omnicuris, to reach 235,000 doctors. They service seven of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies in India and charge them an annual subscription of up to Rs.1.1 million for targeted campaigns. With a fixed campaign charge, the cost per impression comes to Rs.1-4, which for other Ad managers such as Google or Facebook would cost anywhere between Rs.30-60.
The start-up works with its client’s advertising agencies for campaign planning. While the ad executives focus on the design and wording, Doceree suggests the best platforms for publishing the campaign. Around 68% of the income goes to the publishing website and the remaining to Doceree.
While digital marketing seems an efficient way to market prescription drugs, Sanjeev Kumar, forecast analyst at Forrester, is skeptical about the channel’s growth prospect. “Over the years, we have seen pharmaceutical companies offering gifts and tokens, too, as complimentary presents to the physicians. Though this is not ethical, it has been an integral part of the interaction between physicians, medical representatives and the pharma companies. It will be interesting to see if the companies succeed in changing this behaviour by going digital,” he says.
Doceree recently raised $1 million in seed funding from a group of angel investors from the healthcare industry in India and the US. Rahul Gupta, the first investor and an director in the company, says, “The team has the right mix of timely delivery and significant clients.” Gupta invested around $250,000 purchasing 5% stake in the company.
Them versus us
The start-up has come up with various innovations, especially for the Indian market, because it has many restrictions and poorly organised healthcare data on individuals. In the US, where the adoption of electronic prescriptions is high, the start-up can demonstrate quantitative results of any campaign. “We are able to show the number of prescriptions that a doctor wrote based on the ad campaigns run by the company live on the dashboard,” says Jain. To facilitate that, Doceree has a measurement cloud, for which it has partnered with a data management company.
In this geography also operates PulsePoint, a company that could be considered Doceree’s competitor, with its similar model of programmatic advertising for physicians. But PulsePoint reaches the target audience through big consumer networks instead of professional ones, which increases their impressions, too. Jain says, “Their major thrust area is called non-endemic network, which is basically consumer networks in the US. They are currently exploring partnership opportunities with us to build a symbiotic plan. They are not an exact competitor in that sense.”
In India, things could change in Doceree’s favour with the new National Digital Health Mission (NDHM). It could significantly organise the ecosystem, believes Jain. Under the mission, every patient will be getting a unique identification number, against which all healthcare data will be listed. Another change going in the start-up’s favour is of consolidation in the e-pharmacy space, with biggies such as Reliance and Amazon expressing interest and established start-ups such as Medlife and PharmEasy merging. With this, e-prescriptions could see wider usage and this means more data to mine. According to Jain, use of e-prescriptions could increase from roughly 3% now to 20% in the next three years, especially in urban areas.
Early this year, when the pandemic unfolded, it gave an unexpected boost to the start-up’s business. Pharma companies are now more open to trying new channels of marketing, as meetings between sales reps and doctors cannot be as easily arranged. Raghav Anand, segment leader, digital media, EY India, says the real impact of such innovation on the ecosystem can be gleaned from the share of marketing spend being allocated to digital advertising by pharma companies. “Targeting and impact created will decide the future of the platform, since the target audience is niche, unlike Google’s mass advertising strategy. Doceree is more B2B,” says Anand.
Selling prescription drugs in India involves a lot of relationship building and gift-giving. While there is no doubt that some in the medical fraternity prescribe drugs for their effectiveness than for the holiday their manufacturer offers to sponsor, medical reps are far from being obsolete. Therefore, Doceree and its investors will do well to lean on the US market while waiting for the winds to change here.