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Digital technology: Key to a healthcare revolution

• With 451 million active internet users, digitization has left an indelible mark on India, across sectors.
• Around 76% of healthcare professionals in the country already use digital health records in their practice. Further, numerous start-ups in India are bringing novel technologies such as wearable-tech, genomics, telemedicine and artificial intelligence to the country’s healthcare ecosystem.
ICT-led delivery and consumption of healthcare services have a number of benefits like reaching out to patients in remote areas or those with chronic diseases. 
• These difficulties can be resolved by investing in this technology, spreading awareness about its use and creating conducive environment for it to flourish.

With 451 million monthly active internet users, digitalization has left an indelible mark on India. From food and dining to commuting to entertainment to commercial transactions – there is hardly any domain of life which has not borne the imprints of virtual world. One such arena where digital technology is making its presence felt is the healthcare sector.

The global digital health market was estimated at US$ 179.6 billion in 2016. At a CAGR of 13.40% during 2017 to 2025, it is projected to reach US$ 536.6 billion by 2025. The demand for digital health services is comparatively higher than other digital health components and is projected to remain high over the forthcoming years, states the research report.

Findings from Future Health Index 2019 disclose that around 76% of healthcare professionals in the country already use digital health records in their practice. Further, India meets the 15-country average when it comes to the usage of artificial intelligence within healthcare at 46%.

The use of this technology by healthcare professionals in the country is known to have yielded a positive impact on quality of care (90%), healthcare professional satisfaction (89%), and patient outcomes (70%) when compared to the 15-country average of 69%, 64% and 59% respectively. Thus, the findings from this survey divulge that India has made progress in the field of digital healthcare technology. Tools including tele-health and adaptive intelligence solutions have become pivotal in delivering value-based care across the healthcare continuum in India.

A number of start-ups in India are bringing novel technologies such as wearable-tech, genomics, telemedicine and artificial intelligence to the country’s healthcare ecosystem. ICT-led delivery and consumption of healthcare services has a number of benefits for the users. Firstly, this model of care creates the much-needed structured care continuum for the pool of chronic patients by offering them an interface (mobile app) with the healthcare system throughout the year, beyond those periodic doctor visits. For example, organisations such as NanoHealth and BeatO have developed such mobile apps linked to patient’s glucometer, which stores sugar levels of the patient over time and helps monitor cardiovascular, hypertensive diseases and diabetes.

Secondly, it is also ideal for catering to patients with mobility constraints or those in remote locations. For example, Karma Healthcare provides telemedicine solutions, which connect patients in remote parts of the country to physicians in urban areas. There are some start-ups in India which are also reaching out to the global audiences. For example, Onco.com is connecting cancer patients to distant specialists based on the latter’s sharing of standardised reports.

While the country has numerous favourable factors for being the global epicentre in digital healthcare continuum, there are certain obstacles impeding this development. For example, not every person in the country is aware about the usage of these apps. According to the Future Health Index, 49% of Indians say they know nothing at all about the benefits of digital health technology or mobile health apps in healthcare. Further, one of the deterrents to scaling up of ICT in the Indian healthcare context is high customer acquisition costs and the difficulty in gaining the trust of the patients in using this technology. Another major challenge is that of infrastructure bottlenecks – not every citizen of this country has access to internet, which is the basic tenet for telemedicine’s success.

Malaysia is one country which is a leading name when it comes to digital healthcare services. It’s eHealth strategy, which is aligned to its national 5 year rolling plan, has made the country stand out in this field. The country launched the Malaysia Health Information Exchange (2009); Integrated Primary Care & Oral Health Clinical Information System; and a nationwide pharmacy information system. Malaysia is also known for embracing innovation and evolving trends in this field. India, too, should maintain such systems to enhance awareness about this form of healthcare.

Germany, too is an eminent player in digital healthcare. It has applications like ‘Fast track’ which allows doctors to prescribe low risk medical applications. It allows healthcare professionals to active promote themselves on such apps. In fact, to check the spread of Coronvirus, the German Health Ministry is encouraging free tele-health services from licensed telehealth service providers. This is something that India can take a cue from.

Dr. Arvind Aggarwal, MD, SevatiDevi Memorial Digital Medical Centers Pvt. Ltd. believes that India has the potential to take its  health services beyond borders using digital medical centres as he states, “By setting up a global network of digital medical centers, India can export quality health care to other countries at low cost, generating goodwill &  making India a most favoured nation and health capital of the world.” He points out to the doctor-patient ratio of India (government allopathic doctor), which is 1:10,926 compared to the WHO’s recommended ratio of 1:1,000. Moreover, nearly 75% of dispensaries, 60% of hospitals and 80% of doctors are located in urban areas in India and serving only 28% of the Indian population.

So digital healthcare makes immense sense to enhance the capabilities of the healthcare sector, and efforts must be directed to attract private investment in this sector. Standardising the patient-doctor interaction by way of legislation that takes into account the confidentiality of the patient would be a good way to attract private investment. The legal framework should also encompass medico-legal negligence or malpractices. Another thing that needs to be undertaken to establish India as a global hotspot in digital healthcare is to invest in R&D. Start-ups could experiment with a mixed delivery model – using offline and online together till the time a complete shift to the virtual mode doesn’t happen. Last but not the least, efforts must be undertaken by stakeholders to build the value of Brand India as a leading destination in global healthcare.

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