It took Sonali Srungaram 17 years to realise that an urge to create something of her own during her teenage years was not a passing whim, but her primary passion. After working for Accenture out of three countries (India, UK and New Zealand)  for more than a decade, she launched CIPHER Healthcare, a company which operates a pan-India helpline to offer all forms of assistance to cancer patients and their family and friends. Theirs is a patient-centric model rather than focussing on service providers in oncology.

Always having an interest in the healthcare industry, one of her close relative’s cancer diagnosis made Sonali realise how fragmented the setup was with respect to cancer care.

In her relative’s case, she informs that although the doctors noticed symptoms, they constantly misdiagnosed the condition. So, she decided to work in the space of raising awareness and the prevention of cancer.

Sonali says, “We launched CIPHER Healthcare in 2012 and started visiting MNCs to start awareness drives. In six months, we had completed 33 awareness sessions which gave us an exposure to around 50,000 people at these MNCs. We especially spoke to over 3000 people on a one-on-one basis and assisted in the preventive screening of over 500 people.

During one such screening report, we noticed that one woman was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer. At this point in time, I realised that we had to give her this difficult news, but were not in any position to offer more help. My conscience would not allow me to leave them in a lurch like this.”

Sonali explains the expansive nature of the project: “Someone from Ranchi could call us to find out the best hospital for treatment of a specific kind of cancer along with cost, schemes available and insurance details. At the same time, some clients have called us to understand what they can do to prevent cancer when they have just quit smoking.

Several calls are also from desperate family members who get very worried looking at a patient going through several side effects of treatment. The key is that each case is unique, and our job is to provide the appropriate amount of empathy and information to each individual so that they feel empowered.”

One of the obvious challenges for her was the fact that Oncology is a very tough subject area to breakthrough and oncology management is a lot harder when compared to other diseases.

India could be still considered on the cusp of battling with the morbid disease. Coming from a non-medical background she had to work that much harder to establish credibility in the field. She says, “As a woman entrepreneur, I faced several biases which made things harder. Somehow there is a perception that a male entrepreneur has more dedication to offer to his job, but a woman does not have the capacity for the same. I am slowly trying to find my way in this environment.

The biggest achievement with Cancer Helpline is the fact that we managed to help out over 23,000 patients. In the last few months, we have had several offers of mergers and acquisitions, which validate that what we have built is valuable.”

One of the reasons that Sonali wanted to become an entrepreneur was that she liked working for herself.

She asserts that she had a great time as a professional but she wanted more control over her time and how she used it. Owing to the fact that cancer is a chronic disease and not an infectious one, she feels that the Indian healthcare infrastructure is still not geared up to support patients.

Sonali, who hopes to open Cancer clinics to directly provide services to patients in the next few years says, “In the case of a chronic disease, it can never truly be cured. Its nature is such that its risk remains even after treatment. For chronic diseases, given the uncertainty and duration of treatment, a patient might only spend as much as 20% of their time in hospitals with the remaining care being received at home. Neither our healthcare system nor patients’ families are prepared for this change. With our past focus primarily being on hospital care, how will we sort this problem?

Right now there is an enormous need for integrative systems of healthcare – organisations and individuals who help fight the disease holistically by helping the patient outside the hospital while working with the doctor providing treatment inside the hospital.”

Picture Credit: Deccan Chronicle

Read More by Amrita Paul

Also Read: Contraceptive Pill Could Prevent Cancer For 30 Years: Study