Building India’s healthcare response system: An interview with StanPlus’s Prabhdeep Singh

StanPlus CEO Prabhdeep Singh talks to TNM on building an emergency response system in India, and the access, affordability, and use of tech in healthcare.
Prabhdeep Singh
Prabhdeep Singh
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StanPlus, a Hyderabad-based ambulance network and medical response company started in 2016, but in March 2020, the company found itself in the middle of the pandemic and its ambulances were transporting some of the first diagnosed COVID-19 patients in the country. In the 18 months since the pandemic began, StanPlus says it has transported over 20,000 COVID-19 patients. This, however, is less than 10% of the people the company has helped get to a medical center or provided emergency care for.

In an interview with TNM, founder and CEO of StanPlus, says that the company aims to get emergency help in under 15 minutes to as many people as possible — as opposed to the average emergency response time in India of 45 minutes. They are not looking to do this just by reaching out to people individually, but by partnering with hospitals as well as business enterprises. “We're enabling enterprises and employers to offer emergency help to all their employees, no matter where they are in the country. On the other hand, for hospitals, we operate their ambulance system and emergency system ground up,” Prabhdeep says. The company also operates its own ambulances, called Red Ambulance.

When it comes to providing emergency medical care, time is of the essence, and Prabhdeep says that while they reach a person in need of help or the hospital in less than 15 minutes in Hyderabad, they are soon reaching that number in Bengaluru as well.

When asked if they are looking at lowering the number below 15 minutes, Prabhdeep says that while 12 minutes is fair, reducing every minute under 15 is an expensive affair. “I’d rather first bring 45 minutes down to 15 minutes in Mumbai rather than bring 15 minutes to 14 minutes in Hyderabad,” he says. At the moment, the company has a presence in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Raipur, and is launching in Coimbatore and Bhubaneswar and is looking to expand to Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Pune and Indore in the next six months.

Prabhdeep adds that the company’s decision to start in Hyderabad in 2016 has worked out well. He says that the city has good healthcare infrastructure, is home to several large hospital chains and that it offers “a lot of scope for a healthcare startup to test the waters and begin expansion.” Today, Prabhdeep says that 8 out of 10 of Hyderabad’s top hospitals' emergency response is run by StanPlus.

The company’s focus, he says, can be summarised as, “How can we put thousands of ambulances over the next 3-5 years to essentially manage emergency response for Indians at scale? How do we take Hyderabad and multiply it into 30 cities?”

The company also launched air ambulances recently. But given India’s healthcare expenses are largely borne out of pocket by consumers, Prabhdeep says the company is thinking about both access and affordability.

Access and affordability

For access, he says India has huge medical migration where people move in a graduating manner from rural areas to towns and eventually to metro cities for treatment of illness. And to tackle this medical migration, the company says it has a 30-city launch plan over the next three years.

“When people get transported over long distances, are they using the right transport? This is where we come in. So, when I say that we have a 30-city launch plan over the next three years, 10 cities in the next six month — one of the things that we are trying to solve is access. We want to offer our patients, our enterprise customers and our hospital customers the best medical response system, best patient transport system across the cities they service, across the peripheries and towns,” he says. The company has plans to raise capital and hyperscale. 

On the question of affordability, Prabhdeep says that whether a patient can afford an ambulance or not is a problem to be solved through different means.

“We require a way of subsidising it for people who cannot afford it. Can I offer it for free? I cannot. I cannot rely on the government to pay me money. In terms of service, what I can do is make it as affordable as possible by incentivising and subsidising different value chain players so that the end customer pays minimum from out of pocket,” he adds. He also notes that very few similar services offer cashless payments for patients.

StanPlus says there are 200 ambulances it owns or controls, around 1,000 in direct association (where they have the company branding or rely on StanPlus for a majority of its business), and 3,000 ambulances that it indirectly is associated with.

It has been said that StanPlus was looking to be the Uber of ambulance service providers, but the company continues to be asset-heavy, and says that will continue in the near future as well. Currently, 70% of the company's rides are done on ambulances it owns and operates, Prabhdeep says.

“We are not here to Uber-ize the ambulance system. We are here to make the Indian ambulance system 911, where we pick up the calls, we dispatch the nearest ambulance and we get patients into the hospital in the most reliable manner,” he says. In the current ecosystem, he says the ideal way seems to be to build the ecosystem themselves, and that involves being asset-heavy.

The future of emergency medical care

The company continues to run call centres and emergency desks where people can call in to order an ambulance. This also comes amid a pandemic where tech has been a part in every sphere, raising questions of accessibility.

For this Prabhdeep maintains they don’t want to replace the call model, but augment it. He says that when humans are in need, there is an innate desire to be comforted and talked to, especially during emergencies.

“We are thinking beyond apps. We are thinking of Alexa, wearables, and fire alarms. We want to be omnipresent when it comes to offering emergency services whether you call us, whether you call your hospital, you call your employer, or you call any of the people, or devices in the ecosystem who are ready to listen to you. That includes your phone, which is an app; it includes your smartwatch, which can detect health signals; it is your fire alarm, an emergency button in your car, or on your bike which may fall or on your helmet — we are open to integrating our technology. We’re building that environment in which all these devices can start talking to emergency service at the earliest,” he says.

For non-emergency transport, which is 75-85% of what the company does, Prabhdeep says things can be done on an app — something the company is building.

He says the company has been profitable since last year, and it makes most of its money through road ambulances.

“We want to be at a recurring run rate of Rs 100 crore plus in the next six months. And we are still a three-city operation. There's a large opportunity for us. We are still not in Mumbai and Delhi, which are arguably bigger markets than Hyderabad and Bengaluru. While we are not currently at 100 crores, in the next six to nine months we should be. A lot of this will come from road ambulances,” he says.

For the possible third wave of the pandemic, Prabhdeep says the company has purchased new ambulances, has stocked up on oxygen, as well as trained more people.

In terms of future growth, Prabhdeep says there are three ways of looking at it — broadening the product from emergency medical response to something more in healthcare delivery, looking at being present in more geographies, or even creating further verticals within emergency response (like building neonatal and pediatric ICUs or dialysis transport, for example). “We are focused on making sure that we grow in all these three dimensions,” he says. 

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