Express Healthcare

Can health tech bridge the gaps in India’s healthcare system?

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Priyadarshi Mohapatra, Founder, CureBay talks about the need for harnessing the full potential of health tech and its crucial role

The physical and mental wellness of a nation depends on multiple factors, of which access to an equitable, affordable, and accountable healthcare system is the most critical. Poor health affects domestic economic growth directly by creating a negative effect on labour productivity. The doctor-population ratio in India is 1:1456 against the WHO recommendation of 1:1000 (The Economic Survey 2019-20). As per NITI Aayog – Dr Vinod Paul, India will achieve the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended doctor to population ratio of one doctor per thousand population by 2024.

Despite improvements in healthcare access and quality, India ranked 145th out of 180 countries in Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Only few sub-Saharan countries, some Pacific islands, Nepal, and Pakistan were ranked below India. Our health system has moved from “not available” to “available but mal-distributed and inefficient.” Even though we are reaching global standards, there is a huge skew in the distribution of doctors working in the urban and rural areas with the urban to rural doctor density ratio being 3.8:1.

Quite evidently, we are still lagging behind in providing access of quality healthcare to the rural population, with a wide disparity in the rural and urban indicators of health status. As much as 59.2 per cent of health workers operated in urban areas, where 27.8 per cent of the population resides; 40.8 per cent of health workers operated in rural areas, where 72.2 per cent of the population resides. Doctor to population ratios were 2.8 and 0.03 per 1000 persons, respectively, in the private and public sectors, and the nurse to doctor ratio was 0.24 and 0.71, respectively.

The healthcare delivery is primarily shouldered by the private sector, with very poor ratios of average population served per government allopathic doctors. In Bihar, one government allopathic doctor serves 28,391 people. Uttar Pradesh is ranked second with 19,962 patients per government allopathic doctor, which is followed by Jharkhand (18,518), Madhya Pradesh (16,996), Chhattisgarh (15,916), Karnataka (13,556), and Odisha (12,744) (6). To address the skewed access to healthcare in rural areas and last-mile delivery challenges, technology-enabled platforms can be effectively utilised and offer a promising new avenue.

The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased how a healthcare crisis can get transformed into economic and social crises. The imposition of lockdown during the pandemic led to an aggressive adoption of telemedicine. Technology-enabled platforms played a key role as an alternate distribution channel for remote delivery of healthcare services. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) issued of the Telemedicine Practice Guidelines 2020 to protect not only the consumers and but also Registered Medical Practitioners (RMPs).

The guidelines brought in clarity in terms of regulations for telemedicine and validity of e-prescriptions, which allowed RMPs to practice on tech platforms without any fear of regulatory issues. Consumers have also become far more comfortable while availing health advice on digital devices post the lockdowns when no physical movement was possible. These technology platforms coupled with digitalisation and the promise of artificial intelligence at-scale have led to a drastic uptake in the utilisation of telemedicine for primary care and mental health.

To harness the full potential of health tech, investment by the Central and the State governments in internet connectivity, right tech platforms and physical health infrastructure is imperative. With the start-up boom in India, the right health tech platforms are well funded. The real challenge lies in providing support to innovative and disruptive models trying to solve for access to healthcare in remote locations, but is rural India ready for this change?

The Indian rural market is increasingly becoming the economic powerhouse of the country, accounting for about 50 per cent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). A total of 70 per cent of the country’s population resides in the rural areas and is emerging aggressively as the super consumer. According to the Nielsen report, two-thirds of rural super consumers are looking for products that either improve their lives or make it easier. They are conscious about their health and fitness and are on the lookout for better conditions, brighter prospects, and bigger ideals.

They are ready to try new things, leading to a remarkable multiplier effect on businesses and the economy. The use of innovative health tech tool, artificial intelligence, and machine learning can help provide better healthcare services even in the remotest of areas. Therefore, people living in remote areas /difficult terrain can obtain access to the best doctors from their homes. They can also aid medical staff in managing chronic ailments such as diabetes and hypertension by way of regular follow-ups with patients at the convenience of their homes, thus encouraging them to adopt self-care behaviours.

These tools not only lead to better patient engagement but also help physicians make better decisions on account of informed decision-making and diagnosis. The data collected via these tools can be used to understand the health status population and estimate the magnitude of any problem in any geographic area. It can identify high risk groups and examine relationships between risk factors and outcomes. With these complex analyses, it is possible to implement timely interventions in order to modify the complications or outcomes and also continue monitoring to assess the effectiveness of these interventions.

Surveillance data results can be used for many purposes including healthcare and patient advocacy, providing a basis for priority setting and allocation of healthcare resources. Health tech is not just about providing health services for acute and chronic conditions but also to see how data and tech can be used to propel people towards preventive cure and wellness. It can enormously impact human health and longevity, resulting in increased productivity of the population, which contributes significantly to the national economy.

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