Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Digital India project isn’t only about improving broadband and telecom infrastructure in the country. There is broad consensus that once a high-speed network is in place, it will play a significant role in providing quality healthcare to a large number of people, especially those residing in non-urban and rural areas. Young doctors’ reluctance to serve in rural areas is well known; a key reason as to why the major emphasis of the central and state governments has been on establishing a network of primary healthcare centres which feed into secondary and tertiary healthcare centres. Here too, the endeavour has not delivered the expected outcomes due to lack of trained manpower which is key to delivering adequate healthcare in rural areas.
Experts, however, feel that technology and knowledge can fill up this gap in rural healthcare. No wonder, some of the forward-looking government enterprises are moving towards tele-medicine or e-health services. Recently, minister of state for labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya inaugurated the first phase of the tele-medicine services of Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC), for providing specialist medical services from a distance to insured workers. ESIC, an autonomous body under the ministry of labour and employment, manages a self-financing social security and health insurance scheme for Indian workers who earn Rs 21,000 or less per month as wages.
With this, ESIC’s Model Hospital at Basaidarapur, New Delhi, has been connected with three ESIS dispensaries at Katihar (Bihar), Unnao (Uttar Pradesh) and Rudarpur (Uttarakhand). As the three dispansaries came live online, the minister interacted with staff and patients at these centres. An ESIC official informed that these centres will provide specialised healthcare services to the ESI beneficiaries residing or working at different geographical locations with limited medical specialist services.
At a basic level, tele-medicine is the exchange of medical information from one site to another through electronic communications. This is done for the purpose of improving a person’s health. “We all know that there is a huge challenge of providing quality healthcare in our country. And, this can be addressed if we use technology,” said Shankar Aggarwal, secretary, labour and employment. “We have seen how technology-driven initiatives have helped the government in reaching out to people with e-governance services. Similarly, we need to adopt information communication technology (ICT) in our healthcare system in order to improve healthcare facilities.”
ESIC has been working on this ambitious pilot project at 11 of its locations in coordination with C-DAC, Mohali under the aegis of “Digital Inclusive and Smart Community (DISC)” which is a part of the Digital India programme. So far, one hospital and three dispensaries have been connected. Going forward, three specialised ESIC hospitals are likely to be connected with eight ESI dispensaries at remote locations where there are no specialised ESI healthcare services available.
According to a ministry official, in the second and third phase, the remaining two hospitals and five dispensaries will be connected. These include the hospital at Rajaji Nagar in Bengaluru, which is to be connected to dispensaries at Korba and Khursipar Bhilai, in Chhattisgarh. Similarly, the other hospital at Joka in Kolkata will be connected to dispensaries at Shillong, Agartala and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The world of medicine is constantly changing. Technology now plays a big role in the medical domain. Thanks to advancements such as tele-medicine, patients can obtain access to medical services or information that might normally be unavailable. Especially in the context of rural India, it can be a good fit.