By Dilip Jose
In the COVID-19 era, many businesses witnessed a fundamental shift in the way they interacted with their consumers and also led that shift largely working from home. Healthcare sector, however, continued to deliver from its workplace under extremely stressed working conditions.
The pandemic created an unprecedented strain on the healthcare infrastructure in India. The exponential spike in the number of infected cases severely tested the entire system. What makes it tougher for India is its low per capita availability hospital beds (1.2 per 1,000 population vs. WHO guideline of 3.0 per 1,000) and exacerbated by a shortage of healthcare workers (physicians @ 50% and nurses @ 30% lower than WHO guideline). This major gap between demand and supply has left many seeking care in despair.
Although healthcare cost in India is low compared to developed markets, it is still out of reach for many in the country. Large sections of our population still have no insurance or inadequate cover eventually resulting in them having to tap into their savings for medical exigencies. Around 65% of healthcare spend in India is met as out-of-pocket expenditure. Evidently, this puts an added strain on the finances of an average family.
Pandemics throughout human history have paved the way for advancements in healthcare delivery. The Bubonic Plague gave birth to hospitals, which until then were an extension of the church in Europe. The first known use of social distancing and quarantine can be traced back to 14th century Venice when the so-called ‘Black Death’ ravaged Europe. Dr Edward Jenner’s research during the smallpox epidemic of 1796 played a key role in the discovery of preventive medicine.
COVID-19 brought about a similar transformation in the Indian healthcare landscape. It has pushed healthcare players to adapt and improvise. One such significant transformation has been the use of digital technology. Today, accessing care through a digital route has become a more accepted practice for both patients and providers alike. Furthermore the regulatory framework has also moved in tandem to facilitate digital healthcare as an option.
With ~70% of our population still living in rural areas, increased digital adoption should aid in bridging the last mile of delivery to improve coverage in the underserved areas. One of the key shortcomings in rural healthcare delivery has been the lack of access to specialised clinical talent and capabilities of a higher order. Ability to engage through alternate routes with medical professionals who are located elsewhere could in some part address this lacuna. Remote monitoring systems such as wearable devices, E-ICUs, tech enabled ambulances and mobile apps could play a crucial role in improving clinical outcomes and optimising available resources.
In this COVID-19 affected world, another key takeaway has been the increasing awareness for preventive healthcare. This has led to the emergence of newer engagement models in the “out of hospital care” segment. Many a start-ups have forayed into tech based solutions that can work collaboratively with the traditional healthcare system – be it in early diagnostics, chronic disease management, wearable remote health management devices, e-pharmacy and AI based medical management solutions based on big data insights promoting predictive and personalized care.
Similar to any other sector that is leveraging big data, healthcare too must work towards putting together a comprehensive database cum record repository that will serve as an invaluable resource in the advancement of medical technology, along with the added benefits of setting up a standardised health database tracker. The National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) by the Government of India is a step in the right direction to develop a comprehensive digital connectivity framework with data transparency and interoperability that will eventually pave the way for the development of a robust healthcare system which is more affordable and accessible.
(The author is MD & CEO – Manipal Hospitals. The article is for informational purposes only. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)