A recent WHO study, ‘The Health Workforce in India’, revealed that the density of all doctors —allopathic, homoeopathic, ayurvedic, and even unani—at the national level as 80 doctors per lakh population. A simple calculation indicates this to be a doctor patient ratio that is greater than 1:1250. In rural areas, the ratio becomes even more dismal. Advances in healthcare technologies do offer a ray of light, with telemedicine having helped some rural areas to avail of healthcare services that they could otherwise not access. However, because telemedicine remains an emergent industry with only 18 mobile telemedicine units in India, it is yet to make a major contribution. The need of the hour is a unified approach for long-term solutions that would help in optimising disease-care to preventive care, as well as patient centricity via data-driven, efficient technologies. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) becomes relevant, as it skips the human component to standardise quality of healthcare, while simultaneously promoting remote telemedicine. In fact, AI is already playing a major role in transforming healthcare and medicine, particularly in the fields of early diagnosis, precision medicine, and drug discovery.
A compelling global application of AI is evident in detecting early-stage cervical cancer, wherein universities and tech companies are collaborating to deploy some of the cutting-edge AI technologies developed in the lab, for computer-assisted diagnosis and grading of cancer. Imagine the impact of that work in India, where over 62,000 women died of cervical cancer in 2015, accounting for 24% of the total cancer-related deaths of women in India. Through AI, oncologists will be able to use a high-performance computing system to compare a patient’s molecular test results with a vast database of previous cases, thereby enabling customised treatment plans.
These advances in AI are poised to reshape the healthcare industry. There are start-ups such as AIndra Systems that have a vision to enable people to live longer and better lives that are making their presence felt in the healthcare technology sector. This company is developing an AI-based solution to help address issues with prolonged turn-around times in healthcare, dearth of skilled diagnosticians, and accuracy in results for early-stage diagnosis of cervical cancer. Meanwhile, Bangalore-based VectorDoc has developed an app for pre-hospital diagnosis and triage; the app helps analyse blood samples, and generate an entire pathology report without any assistance from a pathologist.
And this is just the beginning. The number of start-ups in the AI healthcare space has increased manifold in recent years, disrupting the way healthcare is delivered in India. According to the Nasscom Start-up Ecosystem Report 2015, India has one of the fastest growing start-up bases worldwide, with around 8% of recent business-to-customer start-ups in India from the health-tech sector. As AI advances from the pilot stage to the democratisation stage, diagnostics and treatment will only improve further. For healthcare to become truly intelligent, continuous access to relevant data is essential to success; the more data a system can get, the “smarter” it will become. All healthcare personnel such as doctors, nurses and other care providers would need some level of training to use information technology, especially how to interpret existing data that is available from multiple sources and analyse it. And most of this data, which is currently recorded and reported in public healthcare on paper-based records and files, needs to move to electronic records.
In the last few decades, healthcare in India has evolved from being curative to becoming preventive. Improved connectivity has provided the masses with accessibility that enables them to manage their own health through apps, basic remote healthcare and more. The future of healthcare in India—especially the public health governance and population health—is dependent on how effectively AI-enabled solutions are built and integrated into to the overall public health system.
The writer is MD, sales & marketing group, Intel Technology India