Unlocking The Potential Of Digital Healthcare In India: What Experts Said At Bengaluru Tech Summit

Unlocking The Potential Of Digital Healthcare In India: What Experts Said At Bengaluru Tech SummitTelemedicine (Intel Free Press/Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • India is taking steps towards digital healthcare, but what are the opportunities and challenges ahead?

    Here's what a panel of experts said at the Bengaluru Tech Summit.

There is a recognition in India and elsewhere that healthcare systems need a strong injection of digital technologies. The need has turned especially urgent this year as health infrastructures in most countries have been found wanting in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

India has taken steps in the direction of digitisation with the launch of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) and will be looking to make progress in building robust digital healthcare infrastructure.

But what does the way forward look like?

A panel of industry experts shared their ideas surrounding digital healthcare in one of the sessions at the Bengaluru Tech Summit 2020, which kicked off today (19 November) in virtual mode after an inaugural address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The ideas revolved largely around the opportunities and challenges of taking the digital route in healthcare.

Shashank N D, founder and chief executive of Practo, said that with the growth in virtual healthcare goods like telemedicine and e-pharmacy, good progress was made in providing affordable healthcare to all, but that there was still a way to go in offering quality healthcare.

“Where we are still in the initial stages is, how can digital help in solving for quality, and that’s where there is a huge opportunity,” he said. “The fact that digital healthcare is available 24x7, on just the tip of your finger, means that hopefully consumers will access it in the initial stages of their health episodes, which will lead to a more preventive nature” of treatment.

Dr Michelle Perugini, co-founder and chief executive of the artificial intelligence-driven healthcare company Presagen, said access to a large amount of quality data was important to building digital health solutions.

“One of the big challenges with digital health and technologies like artificial intelligence is, you need access to large amounts of data, it needs to be good quality, it needs to be globally and clinically representative, and only if you build it at scale can you deliver it at an affordable price for the population.”

Perugini said India has an opportunity to collect “India-connected” data so that it can be leveraged for use in different digital health solutions.

Dr Ajay Nair, chief executive of telemedicine platform Swasth, wondered whether the “world-beating quality” of health service already available in India could be scaled up to cover more of our population of 1.3 billion people.

“Our organised health sector and our organised technology sector serves about the top 150-200 million people, while the rest are mostly served by a very poor system of mostly unorganised providers… There are very few examples of other places in the world that have been able to create systems of care for these many people. So I feel like India has to invent its own,” he said.

Nair added that it could be done only through coordination between the private and public sector, and the organised and unorganised sector.

“Can we take the best of what is there in India, which is really world class, and can we help scale that in whatever way possible?” he said.

Viren Shetty, executive director and group COO at Narayana Health, said that simply adopting digitisation without regard to challenges would not help.

“AI in theory can help doctors make better decisions. By the same logic, if I were to buy a Ferrari, I could get to the Bangalore airport faster. I could, but someone would need to solve for the traffic, for the quality of the roads, for the stop lights, for the traffic signals, for driver discipline.”

Shetty said that when Narayana Health initiated conversations with hospitals across India, they learnt that the challenges these hospitals faced were of the most basic nature. “We were solving for a software we had that wasn’t great and we were building the best iteration of that. The hospitals we were speaking with were coming from a zone of no software.”

Additionally, many don't see the need for technology in their daily operations. “A lot of doctors aren’t fully convinced that they need to spend that much money on digitising their practice because what they have works quite fine,” said Shetty.

He pointed out that hospitals most in need of digitisation are still grappling with issues of internet connectivity and even electricity in some cases.

Shashank spoke to the importance of trust in healthcare. He said this could be achieved in the online space with the help of adopting minimum quality standards. “If we can start having accreditation for online telemedicine players and digital providers, it will lead to certain basic qualities being maintained and hence enhancing the trust of consumers in online platforms.”

In the offline space, there is the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals & Healthcare Providers to oversee the maintenance of quality standards. Perhaps there is a need for a similar body in the online space too.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the hand of many countries to pursue digital healthcare with greater urgency. The technology infusion has already made a difference.

“We have seen in telemedicine almost an 8-10x jump before Covid to post-Covid. On the consumer side, we saw close to 25,000 providers wanting to do online consultations… We had thousands of doctors volunteering to give teleconsultation 24x7 through the day and weekends and public holidays during this period,” said Shashank.

He believes that despite the return to near-normalcy in clinics and hospitals, “these changes on the telemedicine side are going to be quite permanent” and the trends will continue post-Covid.

“One thing that Covid has done,” said Michelle, “is it has brought the world together through 'digital'. Because everyone is experiencing the same challenges, everyone is sort of working together… No one can be selfish in this environment… There’s been a greater appreciation of how digital technology can actually impact globally.”

Nair said that this period of the pandemic has been “a trial by fire” for the health systems.

“It’s really a call for us to start thinking about how we re-imagine how our health system should work. And I think while this devastation has happened, it’s also an opportunity, and that’s really what I would focus on right now.”

Also Read: Experts ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ On Cybersecurity Research In India At Bengaluru Tech Summit

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