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Digitizing Hospitals: Broadening Healthcare Access

What has worked in India’s favour in turning a possible disaster into an opportunity is the country’s broad and ever-growing Internet user base. The country is estimated to have over 80 crore Internet users and 70 crore smartphone users by next year.

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AI is one of the most powerful tools that can completely revolutionise the healthcare industry. (File)

By Dr Nitendra Sesodia

Digitization of services in the health sector has become the norm of the day. The idea, which was in its nascent stage in India before Covid-19 struck, has evolved into becoming a key mechanism for providing healthcare to the over billion-strong Indian population during the pandemic period that has mandated minimised social interaction.

Going by the World Health Organisation’s ‘Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025’, the purpose of digitizing health services is to boost the sector using digital technologies, empower the patients, and realise the health-for-all vision.

This is a part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that talks about the potential of information and communications technology to bridge the digital divide and expedite human progress.

Online care burst onto scene

When the Covid-induced lockdown was clamped in the country, private hospitals made a dash for enabling teleconsultations through smartphone apps for providing holistic healthcare. Now, while it seems that India is largely out of the woods with dwindling Covid-19 cases, digitization of health services is here to stay.

This is largely because it gives people greater access to services, ensures that they benefit from universal health coverage, and get better protection in health emergencies.

India’s overburdened healthcare infrastructure with poor doctor-patient ratio and frightful condition of healthcare access, especially in rural areas, is well documented. With over half of the Indian population still living in rural areas, digitization is the way for advancing universal healthcare.

Government sees an opportunity

Realising the potential of digitizing healthcare services, the Government of India has launched e-Sanjeevani services, providing affordable and accessible care. Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya has termed teleconsultation a boon, especially for primary healthcare.

According to Union Health Ministry data, till January 14 this year, eSanjeevani had registered over 1.6 crore consultations and had served over 65 lakh patients. Currently, around 33,297 Health and Wellness Centres acting as ‘spokes’ are aligned to over 2991 ‘Hubs’ of district hospitals and medical colleges, the data shows.

Building on this, the Indian government has developed the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission to prop up the integration of digital health infrastructure in the country. The vision is to build a nationwide digital health ecosystem that supports universal health coverage and provides a coherent online platform.

With a robust information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure, this system can help hospitals provide seamless and efficient care using patient data from the common repository, eliminating the chances of any delay. It can also help the government in gathering the data on India’s burden on diseases and formulate policies accordingly.

Thank the Internet user base

What has worked in India’s favour in turning a possible disaster into an opportunity is the country’s broad and ever-growing Internet user base. The country is estimated to have over 80 crore Internet users and 70 crore smartphone users by next year.

The utility of digitizing healthcare services is also evident from a 2020 survey report that claimed that physical consultations decreased by around 30 per cent, while there online doctor consultations increased by three times. This was all the more enhanced in non-metro cities that registered a seven times growth in online consultations. Since digitizing healthcare can provide the last-mile delivery of healthcare, it also suits people living in the metros with a busy schedule.

Perks of digitized healthcare

Telemedicine and virtual consultations, along with physical facilities for medical procedures such as surgeries and investigations, can overhaul India’s health sector, creaking under a huge patient burden, and enhance the overall well-being ofe citizens.

There is a growing consensus among doctors that data exchange and information sharing across a health system create a continuum of care that enhances health outcomes, while at the same time building more evidence-based knowledge, skills, and competence for professionals. Also, digitization helps make health services patient-centric — that is, people taking charge of their own health – and weeds out misinformation, especially during emergencies, through a well-designed, robust, and secure platform.

A constant complaint that doctors and healthcare providers have is patients’ non-adherence to treatment regimens which is a critical problem amid a rise in lifestyle diseases. With information technology, this can problem can be addressed efficiently. Digital platforms can alert a person about the time to take medicines, track compliance, and monitor ailments remotely.

Though telemedicine cannot be the answer to all problems, it can be very important in addressing a vast range of issues in the healthcare sector. With its use, distance no longer remains an impediment to accessing quality healthcare.

By using digital technology strategically, the much-coveted goal of “health for all” can be achieved in India quite efficiently and in a short period of time. Right to healthcare is a basic human right and telemedicine can help ensure that all the citizens of our country enjoy this right ubiquitously.

(The author is Senior Director, Medical Communication & Corporate sales, Thieme. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of FinancialExpress.com.)

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