The healthcare sector has undergone a rapid transformation over the last year. While this transition impacted all the spheres of healthcare, it has catapulted the status of diagnostics from a mere enabler to being considered the backbone of the sector. Diagnostics has played a prominent role in the formulation of containment strategies; without testing, it would not have been possible to identify the prevalence and spread of the pandemic. Amid speculations that the pandemic is here to stay, the resilient and agile workforce of the diagnostics sector would help in reimagining diagnostics to build a better future for the segment.
Pandemic induced changes can have a long-lasting impact
The pandemic has provided the diagnostics sector with an opportunity to make a dynamic shift. Organised pathology chains are set to make the most from this opportunity and establish themselves as market leaders. Other than the RT-PCR test, biomarkers associated with COVID-19 disease progression like IL6, CRP and D-Dimer are being sought by consumers now. Trends like these can impact the business practices, and move focus from B2B to B2C as people become more aware and informed.
Another significant change that ensued due to the pandemic is the transition toward digital. While the country was already on the digital-first trajectory, the compulsions of lockdown and later the fear of contracting the disease turned the consumers toward online booking of tests and seeking soft copies of reports. The organised diagnostics chains strengthened their digital presence to cater to this demand. While digitization has provided ease of access to consumers, it is assisting pathologists by increasing their accuracy. Further advancements in digital diagnostics would prove to be beneficial for both the consumer and the service provider.
The diagnostics sector has been investing heavily in technology integration. After the first wave of COVID-19, there was a sudden increase in people seeking preventive tests. The pandemic made people realise the significance of staying healthy. Molecular and Genomic testing has ushered in a new era of evidence-based medicine that is personalised, predictive, preventive and participatory. Preventive tests based on these technologies are redefining diagnostics, and over the next few years, they would alter the way it is perceived.
While technology will play a prominent role in the development of diagnostics, we cannot undermine the significance of human resource. The unprecedented demand for tests made it impossible to collect samples and provide test results in time. This surge has created an urgent need for skilled phlebotomists and laboratory professionals. The organised sector needs to collaborate with standalone centres to solve this crisis.
Coming together, they can train the semi-skilled personnel of these centres. Guiding them would be easy, economical and less time-consuming.
Innovative ideas can push the wheel of transformation
Before the pandemic, no one imagined that their samples would be collected from the comfort of their cars; however, the scenario altered and today we have several drive-through facilities. These facilities emerged as an innovative solution in South Korea and were adopted the world over to cater to the needs of consumers. They not only helped at urban centres, but they also worked wonders for rural centres.
The saying, Necessity is the mother of invention, is apt to describe the innovative solutions in which buses are being converted into mobile units to cater to the needs of patients from far-off areas. Mobile units have facilitated the penetration of diagnostics in tier II, III cities, and they can prove to be immensely useful in catering to rural areas.
Innovative ideas like these can work wonders if the government joins hands with private players. The public-private partnership model has proved to be a boon for remote locations with limited health infrastructures. While the government can ensure sample collection, the diagnostics service providers can pitch in with their laboratory facilities in the nearest city.
Diagnostics at home
Equipment like oximeter, glucometer, blood pressure monitors and pregnancy kits have taken diagnostics home. They made it easy for the consumers while reducing the burden on the diagnostics professionals. As the first line of defence against the contagion, the phlebotomists, technicians, researchers and doctors from the diagnostics realm have been working under immense pressure.
During the second wave, the demand for RT-PCR tests made it difficult for many private players to provide timely reports. However, things may change for good with the approval of self-test kits by ICMR. Easy to operate rapid antigen test kits would soon be available across the country, and consumers would be able to purchase them without prescriptions. While the accuracy of antigen tests is lower than RT-PCR tests, it would certainly reduce the burden on the diagnostics sector. On the other hand, patients would benefit immensely as they would get instant information on their COVID-19 status. Individuals who test negative through these tests may opt for further investigations only if their health condition deteriorates.
Another sample collection mechanism that is gaining popularity and would soon knock the Indian consumer’s door will further ease the stress of the diagnostics sector. It would require consumers to collect their saliva samples at home, preserve the samples according to the given instructions and drop it at the nearest collection centre. Similar kits can be made available at DIY kiosks wherein the consumer may make digital payment and enter the kiosk. The consumer can draw the sample using the equipment and place it in the designated box. The same can be collected by the managing laboratory later.
Bringing diagnostics under the insurance ambit
The cost of diagnostics and healthcare in India is 1/5th of the cost incurred in the United States, yet it proves to be costly for the lower and middle-income group. The low-income group is unable to access healthcare. While the government has tried to address the situation through PM-JAY (Ayushman Bharat Scheme), a significant segment of the populace finds it difficult to undergo the tests. Combining diagnostics with this universal health insurance scheme can further the government’s objective and make it a successful model.
The insurance schemes do not cover diagnostics charge, and consumers have to pay them as out of pocket expenses. Insurance service providers need to address this anomaly and bring diagnostics under the ambit of insurance. While it would help consumers in general, lower-income-group customers would be particularly benefitted from this inclusion.
The next couple of years are crucial for the diagnostics sector as the healthcare sector in the country is undergoing a revolutionary change. Diagnostics players need to adopt a futuristic model while integrating contingency plans for dire necessities. Diagnostics can grow further by leveraging the learnings from the pandemic and adapting to become adept at handling crises.