By Siddhartha Bhattacharya & Barnik Chitran Maitra
With a population of over 1.3 billion scattered across urban and rural India, the country faces a unique healthcare challenge. A WHO report describes the big disparity in urban and rural healthcare infrastructure in the country. For instance, more than 75% of medical professionals are present in urban areas where less than 30% of the population lives. Meanwhile, the 70% of the population living in rural areas suffers from a chronic lack of primary health care facilities. Hospital bed density In India stands at 0.7 per 1,000 people, much lower than the WHO guidelines of 3.5 beds per 1,000. Also, most private hospitals and quality healthcare are limited to only large urban centers.
How to offer world-class care at affordable rates to all its citizens is one of the biggest challenges India faces. Given the scenario described above, technology is the only tool with the potential to achieve this goal.
Technology is spreading widely throughout India, helping address challenges of accessibility, affordability, and quality. Though still in the early stage of adoption, new technology is being acquired and used with speed. Given the size of the healthcare sector, the resultant scale and impact can be immense.
In the last three years marked by the COVID pandemic, India’s healthcare sector has grown enormously mainly due to technological advancement, digitization of healthcare as and government involvement. During this phase, a number of trends have emerged that have enabled cutting-edge technology to further simplify and improve the patient experience.
Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation and Machine Learning tools (ML) have streamed into almost every aspect of healthcare today. The unique power of AI is that it not only complements human skills but significantly expands the scope of human activity. Some AI-related technologies include natural language processing, intelligent agents, computer vision, expert systems, chatbots and voice recognition. Globally, the deployment of AI and ML tools is becoming increasingly popular in helping physicians make better diagnoses.
In India, AI and ML are expected to address shortcomings of the healthcare sector such as high cost of product design and stringent regulation, poor healthcare infrastructure, low patient-to-doctor ratio, low insurance penetration rate (around 20%) as well as thin margins and low R&D investments due to lack of stable pricing. The use of AI & data in healthcare has the potential to add USD 25-30 billion to India’s GDP by 2025. Many companies have started deploying AI & ML to support clinical decisions and improve accuracy and efficiency. One of the widely used applications of AI and automation is the digital management of health records. Another is the use of apps to provide medical consultation based on personal medical history and intelligence gathered through analytics.
AI-powered programs can also support drug creation, lowering the cost of development through general clinical trials, for instance, by seamlessly combining phase I and II clinical trials and collecting and analyzing real world data. (https://www.iconplc.com/insights/digital-disruption/ai-and-clinical-trials/). Precision treatment is another important application—AI-powered body scans can predict health issues that could be genetic, for example, spotting cancer and vascular diseases early.
The healthcare industry needs multi-stakeholder support to create a vibrant technologically-enabled healthcare ecosystem. Government and industry must chart a path towards transforming the healthcare system, using public-private partnerships to increase investments in the sector and drive technology-enabled productivity and efficiency gains. PPPs are not about privatization but leveraging complementary assets, and capabilities and sharing risks equitably between the public and private sector. The prospects are encouraging with the ability to find solutions to difficult issues and ensure inclusive healthcare for all.
In a PPP model, the management expertise, experience, and the new-age technology adopted in the private sector can prove crucial to revamping existing medical facilities in not just in urban areas but also in rural India. Another area for PPP collaboration could be to build asset-light delivery models in Tier 3,4 cities and rural India, leveraging technology to extend the care continuum beyond hospitals, telemedicine being a good case in point. The Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission technology stack could also create PPP collaboration opportunities between the public sector and private sector healthcare providers (including start-ups) and the possibilities are endless.
The aim is to understand the need of patients and provide them with specialist services while resolving the difficulties they face. The healthcare sector in India demonstrated its resilience and dynamic capabilities during the pandemic by providing critical medical equipment and vaccines. Leveraging disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, healthcare aggregators can increase access and deliver faster treatment by way of testing, imaging, and telemedicine.
Looking at the future, it is quite evident that the healthcare system of the country will be under pressure to enhance the efficiency of care and quality and find new ways to use systems, data, and distributed provider networks focused more on disease prevention and wellness. As a result, healthcare systems will need to be more integrated.
This will require a new level of understanding and communication across stakeholders so that they work in lockstep towards common goals, upholding high standards of excellence.
There is also a need for a collaborative effort among the government and credible technical partners to assess costs and thus determine the viability of healthcare delivery systems, both existing and new. We need to broaden our perspectives and forge relationships with specialist organizations and technical partners – global and local.
(The authors are the Secretary-General of NATHEALTH and the Managing Partner & CEO of Arthur D. Little India & South Asia. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of FinancialExpress.com.)