GiveRED is a tech platform that connects voluntary blood and plasma donors to those in need in real-time across India. Just three months after its launch, Covid-19 disrupted everything and also led to a huge shortage of blood supply in the country.
There’s almost always a shortage of blood supply in India, and the problem has aggravated further ever since the nation went into a lockdown due to Covid-19 in March, 2020. All non-essential services had to be shut down for a few weeks and patients were advised to postpone surgeries, if they weren’t urgent. The shortage of blood has had a huge impact on people’s lives, especially for patients suffering from cancer, Thalassemia, or someone who had to undergo surgeries on an urgent basis. And when the hospital or the blood banks don’t have blood of a specific group, the onus is on the family and friends of the patient to move from pillar to post to arrange the required blood units. Social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, has often come to people’s rescue, with quite a few groups, like Blood Donors India and Khoon, amplifying such requests hoping that someone will volunteer to donate blood.
The shortage of blood and lack of transparency in finding donors has created a large black market in India. The search for voluntary blood donors is fragmented, and often a cumbersome process for patients and their families in a limited period of time. It was this predicament that led to the origin of GiveRed, a tech platform, that connects blood donors with those in need.
In an interview with Hemanth Kumar C R, GiveRED’s co-founders, Rohini Kalvakuntla and Harshini Reddy Parvatha, talk about their initiative, blood donation in India, and the need to create more awareness about voluntary blood and plasma donation as the nation continues to grapple with Covid-19.
Hemanth: Rohini, Harshini….both of you have vast experience in healthcare and have known each other for a long time. And you’ve worked for many years in India and the US with multiple companies and large scale public health programs in India, which were backed by the World Bank and Bill Gates Foundation. What inspired you to come up with GiveRED, which specifically focuses on blood, and now, plasma donation?
Rohini : My uncle, whose blood group is rare, had to undergo heart surgery and the doctors told us that we need to arrange for 4 pints of blood. We struggled a lot to find blood donors and we had to delay the surgery by 23 days. I remember us trying various sources, and had quite a stressful time. I’m certain that lakhs of people all over the country face a similar situation. The shortage of blood supply is a huge problem, and Harshini and I wanted to create a platform that would bring together voluntary blood donors and those who need blood. That’s how GiveRED started.
Harshini: We chose to use WhatsApp as the user interface because donating blood is usually seen as a one-time thing and it’s easy to coordinate everything on WhatApp. The USP of GiveRED is that we focus on location-specific donors, that are of the same blood group and are currently available to donate, so that there isn’t a huge delay in processing the requests. As soon as someone is ready to donate blood on a given date, we send them a pre-screening form which is quite detailed to minimize any potential rejections after going to the hospital or the blood bank to donate blood. We then take them through the entire procedure, where they have to report, whom they have to meet, and co-ordinate the whole thing. There have been a number of initiatives over the years to find blood donors whenever there’s a request, but a lot of that is being done manually. We want to streamline the process through technology. We are extremely donor-centric; we believe in providing a transparent and convenient platform for the donor to donate.
Hemanth : So, GiveRED is a tech company bringing together blood donors and those in need…
Harshini: Yes! We don’t collect blood from the donors. We facilitate the technology to bring the donors and those in need together. But at the same time, we also follow a number of clinical protocols which are quite essential to document before someone goes to donate blood or plasma for that matter in the wake of Covid-19. Just because you have recovered from Covid-19, it doesn’t mean you are immediately eligible to donate blood or plasma. We have to know if you have gotten the tests done for antibodies, how long has it been since you were discharged and more details like that.
Hemanth : You started the company in early January, 2020. How has the response been so far?
Rohini: We started it as a pilot project in Hyderabad since Harshini and I are based here, but now we have scaled it up to process requests across the country. Our platform has more than 5000 active donors, and since we are focusing more on a targeted service, there are multiple donors in major locations. One of the things that we tried doing, quite actively, from the beginning was to tie up with corporates and universities. We want to create ‘Red-Hubs’ where plenty of people from an organisation sign up to donate blood. We are also actively trying to reach out to female donors and first-time donors and create an awareness about blood donation. The number of women who donate blood voluntarily is abysmally low in India, and there’s a need to encourage more of them to come forward.
Harshini: We aren’t the only company in the market where people can reach out to whenever there’s a need. And that’s understandable. Our matching percentage is around 55-65% and we try our best to find donors; however, when someone requires blood of rare groups, it gets tough to find donors in sufficient numbers. But we are constantly striving to increase the match-rate. On a different note, as a tech company, we take data privacy very seriously. We don’t give access to our database of donors to anyone. We do the matching through our system using AWS servers that are HIPAA compliant, specifically to protect patient/donor information. And we are also quite transparent with our donors. So, everytime they donate blood, we also inform them about how their noble act has helped a patient.
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Hemanth: How has Covid-19 affected your initiative?
Harshini: It’s made it really tough for people to donate blood, to be honest. There’s a report which suggests that during the lockdown, the voluntary blood donation fell down by almost 75% in the country. People who donate blood regularly aren’t going to hospitals because they think that they are at risk of getting infected.
Rohini: One of the things we did was to create an “emergency list” of donors who are willing to donate blood after taking precautions and following guidelines even during the lockdown. We have been able to facilitate blood donations during the pandemic too, using screening to ensure the donor has not travelled in the recent past, has not been exposed to COVID-19 positive people, or have had symptoms.
We have repurposed our initiative to encourage plasma donations as well. Convalescent plasma therapy is in experimental stages and is used in emergencies to help COVID-19 patients in hospitals. We are using our existing platform to now connect recovered COVID-19 plasma donors to patients in need.
We have always been focused on creating awareness about blood donations, and now that there’s a lot of demand for plasma from those who have recovered from Covid-19, we are educating and encouraging plasma donations.
Hemanth : Considering the importance of blood donation, why is it that more companies haven’t entered this space over the years?
Rohini: I feel it’s mostly to do with blood donation being voluntary in nature, at least as per the law. There has been very little innovation over the decades. There have been several startups in this space or NGOs but have fizzled out over a period of time due to lack of sustainable funding.
Harshini: I also feel that there needs to be a lot of collaboration and communication between different stakeholders to increase blood donation. That’ll help everyone in future.
Hemanth: I’ve always wondered why do hospitals place the onus of finding blood on the patient’s family. Isn’t that a hospital’s responsibility when someone undergoes a surgery there?
Rohini: It’s mostly to do with the fact that no one wants to take responsibility. No one wants to give a guarantee for something that is dependent on voluntary donation, it is not something that is manufactured. In India, we have not been able to implement a centralised system for blood collection and dispatch according to need. The system is highly fragmented, at the central, state and district levels making it difficult to ensure availability of high quality blood at any given point in time.
Also, the overall increase in blood donations in the country has to happen at a cultural level where the need and benefits of healthy individuals to donate becomes a norm rather than an exception. Everyone when they turn 18 should inculcate the practice of donation.
Harshini : Blood banks do everything they can to help people out, but sometimes, even they don’t have a choice when there’s a huge requirement of a rare blood group. And once you take a unit of blood, they place the onus of replacing it on you (this is called ‘Replacement blood donation’). This also places a burden on patients/ families to search for donors.
Hemanth: Since you are encouraging people who have recovered from Covid-19 to donate plasma, is one of your biggest challenges fighting stigma around it?
Rohini: Right from the beginning, there’s been a lot of stigma around Covid-19, and initially, when someone tested positive, we treated them differently. But as the number of cases increase, the awareness about this virus has also increased. Now, a lot more people are like it’s a matter of time before they get it too. It’ll take time to restore a sense of normalcy and eradicate the stigma around it.
Harshini: Quite a few people who have recovered from Covid-19 are scared to go back to a hospital to donate plasma. And it’s a valid concern. At this moment, we can only appeal to hospitals and blood banks to create safe spaces for people to donate blood and plasma. There’s no shame in helping people who are in need, and that’s what we are trying to do with GiveRED.
For more details about GiveRED visit https://www.givered.in/ or reach out to them through WhatsApp – +91 7330 93 93 93 – for blood donations and Whatsapp – +91 7331101444 for COVID-19 plasma donations.