About a decade ago, Shobhita Narain, then in her teens, was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a condition that affects roughly 1 in 5 women in India.
At that time, she went knocking on doctors’ doors and tried a variety of treatments. However, nothing seemed to work for her and the symptoms, including weight gain and facial hair, increased.
It was only after a few years, when she turned 24 and had researched and read enough about PCOS, that she started seeing a change in her symptoms and managed to regulate the condition. Another person who was a first-hand witness to Shobhita’s struggles with PCOS was her older sister Shashwata (32).
When the sisters started speaking to other women who had the same condition, they realised this was a much larger problem.
“My experience with PCOS in the initial years was not a pleasant one,” recalls Shobhita, now 28, in conversation with The Better India. “I had mood fluctuations, as well as excessive facial and body hair, and weight gain. I went to multiple specialists but was unable to receive accurate medical advice. I had a new question daily, but didn’t know who to ask.”
She also faced the stigma and myths that surround the condition, like how marriage and having a child would “cure” the condition.
“I was asked to get married as a solution for PCOS. Many times in the past, people wouldn’t believe that PCOS was a problem. They thought it was a figment of a woman’s imagination. Women were body-shamed and asked to just lose weight as a solution. Today, the prevalence is increasing and if left untreated, PCOS can lead to several bigger issues like infertility, endometrial cancer, diabetes,” adds Shobhita.
Having been witness to this misinformation and judgement that surround women’s health, the two sisters decided to do something about it.
“We started asking other women and found that thousands shared the same frustrating story. The reason it becomes such a struggle to diagnose and treat PCOS is that the current options are very fragmented. We found that the overall experience is so terrible that less than 1 per cent of women go back to the doctor for a visit,” says Shashwata.
Towards the end of 2020, they conducted a survey in which 4,000 women with PCOS participated and were asked if any of the existing options worked for them.
“We created a screening tool for the survey and one of the questions was what treatments they had tried before and whether they think they worked. As many as 90% said that existing options did not work for them. That was it — we decided that day to launch Veera Health,” adds Shashwata.
A holistic digital platform to treat PCOS
The sisters call Veera Health the “first platform to treat PCOS in an evidence-based manner”.
They launched the platform in January 2021 as part of the Y-combinator 2021 batch. The startup raised a seed funding of $3 Million in July that year from Sequoia Capital India’s Surge and Global Founders Capital, with participation from Y Combinator, CloudNine Hospitals’ co-founder Rohit MA, and other angel investors.
“We really worked towards giving an evidence-based solution. What usually happens — which I noticed in Shobhita’s case too — is a lack of monitoring,” Shashwata explains.
She adds, “Women may go to a gynaecologist, a dietitian, a dermatologist, or a fitness app to manage their PCOS. However, nobody monitors you regularly unless you go for a follow-up. There was no infrastructure or way for these experts to communicate with each other and formulate a plan for you. There was no counselling given as to why you are being given the medicines or the diet. Every day, a woman with PCOS wonders if she can eat this or that.”
Shobhita says that when first diagnosed, women also tend to look at options on the market, like herbal teas, Ayurveda, supplements, etc. While these work in the short term, since it is a chronic condition, the symptoms come back, she notes.
“These solutions were not attacking the root cause. Women were given one-point solutions. For example, if you have acne, the doctor treats you for that. The underlying cause is the excessive production of testosterone, the male hormone. We decided to address this gap, and provide a long-term solution,” she explains.
According to Dr Mansi Verma, gynaecologist at Veera Health, “PCOS was always there, caused genetically, but we are seeing a rampant rise in the number of cases these days due to a combination of increased stress, poor eating choices, poor eating pattern, sedentary lifestyle and disturbed sleep cycle.”
She adds, “Since PCOS is a complex endocrine disorder that affects reproductive, metabolic and psychological aspects, we need a multidisciplinary approach to correct this with an increased focus on lifestyle and dietary changes. We should have SMART goal settings for patients that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.”
Veera Health is a completely virtual platform that brings a host of experts together.
When you first enrol in one of their programmes, you are asked to take certain tests, for which they partner with Tata 1mg. Once the results come in 48 hours, the gynaecologist speaks to you and advises you. After that, the care manager, who is a nutritionist, guides you on diet, exercise, etc.
“We are a digital clinic. We bring everything that a woman needs to manage PCOS in one place. We have a non-judgmental, scientific, evidence-based protocol to diagnose and treat the condition,” says Shashwata.
“Our experts suggest treatment based on the results. She is taught how to eat, exercise, manage stress, and integrate all other lifestyle modifications that may be required. Through our app, she can ask any questions she has on a day-to-day basis, like what she can eat when she goes out, what she can order etc, and she will get replies,” she explains.
Through the app, they also monitor the client’s progress. Shashwata says that they are not just focused on weight loss to cure PCOS. They also have mental health experts and dermatologists.
“We break down the many different habits that she needs to incorporate into her life. This includes reducing sugar, improving the glycemic index of the diet, exercising more, watching your stress levels, and meditating. The care manager coaches the client throughout her journey. We don’t change her diet 100 per cent, we instead give options that she can easily incorporate,” says Shashwata.
They have advisors including Dr Anuja Dokras, who is the director at the Penn Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Centre, USA. They have created a protocol based on her research and recommendations.
Creating an online community for women
The sisters say Veera Health has 100 experts, 38 employees and has helped 20,000 women with PCOS so far.
“We have some of the best outcomes in the history of treatment. About 93 per cent of our members report feeling in control of their PCOS after doing the programme,” claims Shashwata.
She feels that they are tackling the problem of lack of awareness by creating communities online through Instagram and Whatsapp.
“One of the biggest problems consistent with healthcare is the lack of awareness. That’s why we spend a lot of time creating content to answer questions that women have. Over 1 lakh women are part of our online communities. We are improving access to high-quality information and creating a space for women to open up and share what they’re going through,” says Shashwata.
Through a digital platform, they are able to access women in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities as well. Generally, women have a tendency to put off seeking help in case of their health.
“Like most women, I am also guilty of postponing going to the doctor for my health issues. Since Veera is digital, we can reach her wherever she is. PCOS is similar to diabetes, in the sense that it is a chronic condition and cannot be treated by visiting a doctor once a year. It needs ongoing monitoring, which we do,” adds Shashwata.
“We have started our journey with PCOS and have been able to reach several large underpenetrated markets so far. We want to offer a complete solution for women’s healthcare needs. She may come to us at 18, and we want to complete her journey and offer solutions and all the help she needs over that. Be it fertility, conception, menopause, we want to become a one-stop solution,” she also notes.
They have one message for women — prioritise your health and take it seriously.
“One of the important factors fundamental to a happy life is health. With a chronic condition like PCOS, it would not be wise to wait until it gets worse. Take care of it early and nip it in the bud,” says Shashwata.
Another important aspect of PCOS treatment is that it takes time. One has to be patient with the results. The sisters say that it can take nine months or longer to see long-term results.
Meanwhile, Shobhita says that the treatment that Veera recommends is what worked for her, and even she is part of the programme.
“What really worked for me was focusing on my mental health, meditation, gratitude journaling, and being mindful of what I ate. I avoid snacks and processed food. I am in the programme at Veera and send pictures of my food to the nutritionists. I have been able to balance my hormones and well-being through a change in habits,” says Shobhita.
For more information, you can visit their website.
Edited by Divya Sethu, Images Courtesy Veera Health