Dr. Sabahat S. Azim | Glocal Healthcare Systems
Passionate about using technology and innovations in unique new ways to improve service delivery amongst the masses, entrepreneur and change advocate Dr. Sabahat S. Azim - the Founder and Managing Director of Glocal Healthcare Systems - is an ex IAS officer of 2000 batch. He has served the government in various positions like the Secretary to the Chief Minister, Director of IT, Director Vigilance, Jt. Secretary, Personnel & Training, Jt. Secretary Cabinet & Confidential, District Magistrate and others. Dr Azim is an alumnus of JNMC, AMU, Aligarh, LBSNAA Mussoorie and IIM Ahmedabad. Dr Azim’s expertise is spread across a wide terrain, and straddles domains like Business Strategy, Creating new businesses & making them sustainable, Building Organizations, Entrepreneurship, Development, Information Technology, Education, Rural Development and, of course, Healthcare.
Dr Azim has had a long and chequered journey in healthcare, having been the Indian rapporteur for Digital Health e - Health at the WSIS Forum 2009, at the ITU Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland. He is a well known face on several prestigious industry panels, such as a member of FICCI Health Services Committee, member of Health Sector Skills Council, Consultative committee on Ayushman Bharat and so on. Azim has been honoured as Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 by the World Economic Forum’s Schwab Foundation for Social Enterprise. His innovation HellolyfCX Digital Dispensary was awarded the Public Appreciation Award 2020 by UN Innovation at the Health Innovation Exchange HIEx2020 as the most innovative technology to meet the Sustainable
Development Goals of UN.
Glocal Healthcare Systems - the brainchild of Dr. Sabahat S. Azim - is a ‘Tech & Process First’ Healthcare platform that partners Governments, NGOs, Hospitals and other healthcare organizations to expedite healthcare delivery. In particular, it aims to upend some of healthcare’s most important metrics such as affordability, accessibility & accountability, and take them to the next level. “The healthcare system we current have is completely broken, with problems that are huge and insurmountable. If we can make even a small dent in this situation and fundamentally shift the problem of global access - especially to primary care - to some degree no matter how small, that would be a life worth lived”, shares Dr Azim, capturing his big vision poignantly and succinctly.
The team certainly seems headed in the right direction. Under Dr Azim’s stewardship, Glocal Healthcare has set up, and is operating, 11 integrated multi-speciality hospitals, over 250 Digital Dispensaries and a large Telemedicine network in the states of, Odisha, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Beyond India, they are active in no less than 8 countries. Glocal’s Telemedicine platform Hellolyf delivers the ameliorative touch of wellness and wellbeing to millions of patients, and is used across hospitals and digital dispensaries spread across the atlas from Philippines to Tanzania, and is in the process of being introduced to US and other markets even as we speak.
VOH caught up with Dr. Sabahat S. Azim, starting the conversation by probing deeper into the ‘need gap’ the man’s venture is aiming to bridge. The idea pioneer captured the big picture for us, starting with what ails the current system:
“The Big 3 ailments that global healthcare is suffering from are accessibility, affordability and accountability. Healthcare is not accessible to nearly 35% of the global population. This includes access to very basic facilities such as a doctor and primary care. Then, of course, there are the ‘higher needs’ in secondary and tertiary care where there are significant gaps as well. There is also a huge gap between what healthcare offers and what the majority of the masses can afford, which makes affordability - or the lack of it - another burning concern. As opposed to common perception, affordability is an issue not only in developing or poor countries, but also in developed countries such as the USA where a staggering 20% of the population cannot afford to pay insurance premiums. Finally, we have the challenge of accountability. So irrespective of who pays for the service - the individual or the government - there is usually very little clarity on the diagnosis, treatment and impact of the intervention, and vital data is missing.
How does he look at the solution? “We believe that unless and until healthcare can be productized and - to borrow a term from FMCG, ‘mass manufactured’ at scale so that companies can ‘go-to’ market with it like any other ‘product’ - the problem of access will not be solved and we will also not have accountability. A bright example of this is the pharma industry. Medicines were once ‘compounded’ by doctors and their assistants, and ‘dispensed’ to patients from neighborhood clinics : Incidentally, that’s also where the word dispensary comes from. The pharma sector changed that circa 1840 - be it through sanitized capsules, pills and injections - which revolutionized access to medicines across the world. The result is that today, over 80 to 90% of the world has access to medicine. Of course, access to doctors and services - as we discussed earlier - is still missing to a large demographic slice”, shares Dr. Azim.
And how exactly is Dr Azim’s concept addressing this Goliath? The man elucidates, “Glocal is a technology and process enabled system that is trying to transform healthcare into a mass produced product which, who knows, may even be available off the supermarket or kirana shop shelf at some point in the future. The bottomline is that the healing touch of care and cure will - nay, should - be available to everybody irrespective of geography, and should be strictly monitored and measured so that it is clear exactly what the impact is at every point of the value and delivery chain. That, in short, is what we are trying to achieve at Glocal Healthcare Systems.”
An innovative plan that is breathtaking ambitious in the scope the transformation it can engineer, we enquire about the ‘go-to-market’ strategy and implementation plan for Glocal. Dr Azim explains patiently, “We have created a complete spectrum of services. This includes, amongst other things, a telemedicine functionality that virtualizes healthcare by letting patients reach out to doctors on a smartphone or any basic computing device literally from anywhere. At the doctor’s side, there is a clinical decision support system which allows the doctor to make quicker and better decisions. We also have digital kiosks, or digital dispensaries, where doctors can examine the patient, get all the tests done, and medicines are automatically dispensed - making for an intervention cycle that’s complete and completely online. Finally, secondary and acute care hospitals have been plugged into the ecosystem to nudge success and add impact at strategic points. So we are addressing the Big 3 challenges of contemporary healthcare by creating a scalable digital framework from where primary, secondary and tertiary care can be delivered quickly and democratically to anyone anywhere, along with accountability for measuring outcomes.”
We step back a bit from here, taking a moment to steal a glance at the past, to how it all began. Dr Azim helpfully obliges, “I grew up in a middle class family and lived in various regions of UP - Allahabad, Meerut, Agra. I subsequently joined JN Medical College for MBBS. When I was doing specialization I joined the IAS and manned various positions like Secretary to the Chief Minister of Tripura. I eventually came out of the system and, in the capacity of a minority partner, created Sahaj e-Village. We created 18,000 kiosks in rural areas to make a plethora of services accessible to remote and rural populations across WB, Odisha, UP, Bihar, Assam and Tamil Nadu. In 2010, we shifted our focus to local healthcare to make healthcare accessible, affordable and accountable everywhere hyper locally.
Where did this quest for disruption begin? Was there a turning point that changed his view of life, causing Dr. Azim to choose this particular calling? The idea missionary reflectively responds, “I lost my father over a very expensive tertiary care intervention and a surgery that was unnecessary. This transpired in the year 2008. The incident got me thinking. If this could happen to someone like me - who is an IAS officer, a doctor and an entrepreneur and can afford to pay - what might be the fate of the rest of the people of the country who are not so fortunate?
Dr. Azim’s startup has distinguished itself both in terms of the diversity of its product range as well as the breath-of-fresh-air ingenuity it has been introducing into a rather traditional space. And while there’s a long road to travel yet - primarily owing to the vastness of the challenge - there is plenty to celebrate, too.
Dr. Azim reflects on the big milestones. In 2013, we created our first clinical decision support system which empowers doctors to diagnose diseases better, recommends intelligent investigations, releases protocols for treatment once a doctor finalizes diagnosis and can also check drug safety features. Then, we have pioneered HelloLyf, a virtual OPD platform. We have also created a machine that allows doctors to remotely examine a patient and get all tests done there and then in the machine itself. Another product on our portfolio is an automated dispenser.
I always felt that our portfolio was ahead of its time, and while we were scaling steadily, there were various difficulties along the way too - which included a mindset issue since there were some sections of the population that were skeptical of an idea that was fundamentally disruptive. It was, ironically, COVID-19 that brought us our big breakthrough in terms of reach, spread and adoption. The world was suddenly desperate for solutions that could be solved ‘from a healthy social distance’, so to speak, and could reach the far corners of a nation of forbidding geographical dimensions. This gave our products the opportunity to showcase their true potential and come into their own, as it were. So yes, while 2020 was a heart-breaking year for many organizations and industries, it helped us bloom like never before - and we were soon catering to markets from Philippines to the US, and from Mongolia to Tanzania. In a way, COVID-19 was a 12 month long Demo session for us. And while helping the world fight the pandemic, it also acted as a Pilot for future interventions, proving in no uncertain terms that given the right innovation, the trifecta of accessibility, affordability and accountability could indeed be solved.
Dr Azim is a firm believer in the saying : Teamwork makes the dream work. It’s the X-Factor in Glocal’s equation, carrying the power to unlock the true potential of his mammoth idea. “Partnerships and collaborations - be it with local healthcare providers, hospitals or governments - is one of the pillars of our strategy. We remain open to associations at all times, and are constantly seeking synergies that can help optimize the reach and impact of our initiatives”, he says.
For a man who has sown the seeds of change that can be potentially destiny-altering for the nation, Dr Azim has been steadily etching an indelible and unmissable signature on the terrain of India’s healthcare. So where are those footprints on the sands of time headed? How does he visualize his legacy? The level-headed leader may be destined for greatness, but refuses to be weighed down prematurely by its delusion. He says with remarkable sang-froid, “I think it’s too early to talk about legacy. We have hardly fulfilled even a fraction of our true destiny. The journey has just begun. If we can help, enable and empower even a single soul on earth - be it through our partnerships, our associations or directly through us - I would consider our quest a success. We want to leave the world a better place than the one we inherited.”
“Change is easier said than done, so don’t be an entrepreneur if you want an easy life. Consistency and commitment are the other key considerations, so make sure you have the elusive ‘Staying Power’ which can make or mar enterprises and is, if you ask me, even more important than funds or revenue. If you have the conviction to dig in your heels and stay the course in the face of strong headwinds, circumstances will eventually reverse and you will suddenly find yourself in the driver’s seat - with new slots and windows where your idea fits seamlessly, triggering a snowball of wins and a phase of richly earned victory”, says Dr. Sabahat S. Azim - capping off an edifying and inspiring session.
*This story is published by VOH team*
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