During her first pregnancy, Ivy, even though she was in the hands of a capable OB/GYN, had a hundred questions on her mind. Complications would arise, but they were too minor or momentary to consult a doctor. She had no idea who to take them to.
Her daughter, Ameena, was born. Her daughter kept growing, so did her questions. Telemedicine did not exist back then.
Soon after, her mother got diagnosed with breast cancer. The whole process of seeking out doctors, talking about it, and dealing with the social stigma, sent her mother into depression.
"I noticed there was a massive gap in being able to access high quality, locally relevant information and stigma-free expert advice. It took a heavy toll on my mother," said Ivy Huq Russell.
In 2011, Ivy started a blog titled Maya (named after her mother), where she penned down her journey as a mother and a daughter of a cancer patient. People started reaching out to her with many questions. Ivy realised then she had to turn this into a platform.
Fast forward ten years, Maya blog is now a text-based digital wellbeing assistant consultation service that listens to everyone's problems in Bangla, English, and even in Banglish too.
What's more Maya uses a chatbot to screen the primary queries and around 70% queries are reportedly resolved using artificial intelligence, with about 95% accuracy.
So far, Maya has served 15 million people on all platforms, and one-third of them have been treated with consultations. A team of 250 to 300 people are working to provide services to its users, including Maya experts.
The Maya app is available in four different languages: Bangla, English, Urdu and Sinhala. All over the world, around 7 million people interact with the Maya every month. Usually, after dropping a query, within 14 seconds, an expert gets back to the question. This way, it has served 30 million users worldwide.
Their app has been downloaded 3.4 million times in Bangladesh and received a 4.2 rating in the Google play store. On average, every month, there are around 3,50,000 active users of Maya.
How Maya works
Once the app is installed, its interface will display many features. From checking symptoms to period tracking and medicine orders – everything is available on this one app. Users can ask any question while remaining anonymous. Interestingly, one might already find most of his/her answers to essential queries in the question section.
The Maya bot can categorise sensitive questions and topics in colour code, highlighting its severity for Maya experts. The Maya team understands that the service that they are providing is quite sensitive. Hence, the team does not entirely rely on its bot. It has a dedicated team that reviews the questions and answers to check whether they are adequate. Feedbacks and ratings are a way to evaluate the Maya experts, according to Maya's country manager, Marc Thiry.
One can set a video call appointment with experts by spending only Tk250 for a direct and specific solution. Later, one will receive e-prescriptions via mail and can purchase medicine via the app or at a pharmacy.
However, the expert's charge is not always the same. It depends on the services and discount offers.
"Though our target demographic is the upper-middle class, middle class, and aspiring upper middle class, we are trying to make some changes and keep it open for everyone. So, we keep offering discount offers and promote things like scratch cards or free phone consultations over our hotline number," said Adrika Sheikh, Marketing Executive of Maya.
People who would otherwise not be able to afford a video appointment with a doctor can use Maya's scratch card for a price of only Tk30.
Using the cards, one can book one appointment at a time with a Maya expert, through the Maya app. Though currently it is only available in the northern part of Bangladesh, team Maya is working on producing it more in bulk and promoting it, so that it becomes more widely accepted and used by users, specially the marginalised population.
Maya is promoting these scratch cards at roadside tea stalls so that everyone can have access to them.
Maya is also working with a few garments companies and providing free telemedicine services through their hotline number. More and more garment companies are becoming interested in taking their services.
It also provides services to the female branch of corporate offices at different price ranges, from Tk99 to Tk499 per month for each user. Under this charge, it covers all the health issues.
The growth story
Maya received its first seed funding in 2015. Though it initially planned to serve only women, it soon noticed that around 40 percent of its users were male. Therefore, it started providing services for all sorts of health issues.
This February, Maya raised $2.2 million in seed funding led by early-stage venture capital fund Anchorless Bangladesh and The Osiris Group, a Hong Kong-based private equity firm. It is the largest raised amount by a Bangladeshi health tech company so far. Maya has used this funding to restructure the app to provide more features and ensure end-to-end encrypted service.
"There is one doctor for 10,000 patients in Bangladesh. Moreover, the health infrastructure here is capital-centric, but 70 percent of the country's population lives outside Dhaka. So, patients from remote places have to travel a long way to visit a doctor. This is where the Maya app comes in, which can intuitively understand questions, provide answers, and refer the user to an expert," explained Marc.
Maya believes that it can decrease the scarcity of doctors. To ease complications for patients, it has built a feature of a lab diagnostic centre with special discount offers, collaborating with diagnostic centres in the capital, where users can enjoy home sample collection, only reports and can also order medicines.
Also, a portion of the seed funding is being invested in expanding Maya in Pakistan and building an app in Urdu with the same features. Explaining the reason behind expanding in Pakistan, Marc reiterated, "Pakistan is similar to Bangladesh in terms of religious and social stigmas. But Pakistan is a bit advanced in technology so we thought it would be easier for us to expand in an open market.
That does not mean we are not interested in other South Asian countries. Instead, we are always open for new opportunities, and maybe we will expand soon in other countries too."
Maya wants to expand and make its services available all over the country, establishing a wide network of hospitals, pharmacies, and lab diagnostic centres to ensure prompt medicine delivery, referring users to medical centres and collecting samples. In the long run, it wants to achieve better integration of Maya's services in the healthcare industry, among both the experts and users. By 2025, Maya plans to be the name that comes to everyone's mind when they are seeking healthcare.
In the next stage, it wants to incorporate AI-driven diagnostics in hospitals, labs, and apps. It also intends to digitise the whole health care system soon so that a part of treatment can be done at home with the help of technology.
Finally, Marc added, "Telemedicine will never be able to replace physical health care, but it can always complement it by providing good quality services. Covid-19 has also pushed us to get accustomed to this kind of service. So, we want to practice this and bring the best out of it.