India’s journey towards a digital healthcare ecosystem: taking the leap of faith

July 01, 2021 12:42 PM

With about half a billion internet users, the potential to unlock an additional economic value of $1 trillion dollars through inclusive growth is immense.

digital healthcare ecosystemTelemedicine has shown immense promise during COVID-19 in terms of access to consultation at home.

By Vaibhav Tewari,

The Government of India launched the Digital India campaign in 2015 in a bid to transform the country into a knowledge economy, with on-the-go access to information, governance and services. Since then, we have become the second-fastest adopter of digital services. With about half a billion internet users, the potential to unlock an additional economic value of $1 trillion dollars through inclusive growth is immense. This is also true of the healthcare sector wherein blending the digital approach can help tackle the issues of access, affordability and quality. Such a health system also fits in with the idea of an all-in-all digital nation supported by missions like the Ayushman Bharat and Make in India.

On 15th August 2020, Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi announced the launch of the National Digital Health Mission as a part of his Independence Day address. This unprecedented digital initiative is being seen as the first major step towards Universal Health Coverage in India. The move augurs well since healthcare record management in India is as inefficient and disconnected as the sector itself. There are also vast technological and procedural variations across private and public sector facilities.

Currently, a standard government hospital or local healthcare facility is unable to uniformly document all records for services. Although such facilities exist to certain extent in urban area hospitals, there is a great lack of uniform standards of record keeping. This creates issues such as requirement of repeated diagnostic tests and consultations, delayed treatments, concealment or ignorance of medical history etc. All these can often lead to wrong diagnosis and treatment as well as increased costs of treatment. Even in hospitals where digital records are maintained, there is no provision of electronic transfer of patient records from one service provider to another. This lack of access leads to either the patient carrying the medical records in paper format or not having access to them at all. Through the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM), the government is endeavouring to leverage the existing digital infrastructure such as the frameworks related to Aadhar, UPI and the pan India coverage of internet-enabled smartphones to create a cohesive digital system. This is expected to be rolled out soon. However, there are also other components that must be integrated into this ecosystem to make it all-inclusive.

Technology for better access

Digital health solutions are powered by technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Adopting these with prevention, diagnosis and cure can help India run closer to the goal of digital health for all. This is because health-tech is an integral component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and of a society where lifespans are increasing, as is the population of the elderly. Unlike space tech where India already holds a prime place, health-tech is still at a nascent stage. For actionable impact, a digital health ecosystem must comprise digital technologies and access to the same as well. Various healthcare startups are already making a headway in this direction by providing patient-centric care at the comfort of their homes with the help of technology. It is now not only possible to monitor a person’s condition at home but also provide treatment therein. This augurs well for the rising elderly population since they can stay away from hospital-acquired infections. Digital technology is also enabling remote monitoring in extreme situations like the current pandemic.

Telemedicine

This is one of the original components of digital health and India’s National Health Policy.Although there is adoption, the need of the hour is to nurture this component better. Telemedicine has shown immense promise during COVID-19 in terms of access to consultation at home. What is needed in this domain is proper regulation and bringing it under policy deliberation. This will enable access to specialized medical consultation services throughout India and solve the issue of doctor shortage as well as reduce the burden on tertiary-care hospitals in remote areas. There is also a need for more investment in telemedicine especially from the private sector but a clear policy and legislation can resolve this.

Digital therapeutics and diagnostics

These have disrupted the format of health products and services. Digital therapeutics and diagnostics include components such as

· Deep tech in human biology (including an understanding of how diseases occur and progress)

· Genetic engineering and molecular medicine

· ICT services such as cloud computing and 3D printing which enable seamless continuum of care and apps that help in tracking health parameters in real time

· Predictive Analytics which make healthcare decision-making more robust and allow for doctor-patient interactions to become more empathic and care-based as opposed to hurried and transactional.

There is thus a need for a concerted action that operates at different levels of healthcare to resolve problems. A digital decision support system in healthcare will reduce the possibility of errors and improve decision making. A national health policy that puts in place definite guidelines and regulatory framework covering different aspects of digital health will lead the way for better public-private partnerships, indigenous start-ups, and path breaking ideas – and therefore, attract more investment in healthcare and health-tech. All this will ensure that India’s dream of a digital health ecosystem appears not as an uphill task but a dream that all sectors are working in a consolidated manner to realize.

(The author is Co-Founder and COO, Portea Medical. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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