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Digitization in healthcare

As COVID-19 hit the world, healthcare systems and services across the globe underwent dynamic and rapid changes and are evolving each day. While certain technologically superior and digitally advanced healthcare systems across developed nations were able to respond effectively/ optimally to the pandemic, other unprepared developing countries are crumbling under pressure and some even crying for help. This global crisis has got experts across genres thinking. From industry experts, to politicians, to investors, to R&D labs to think tanks and other stakeholders are looking for innovative and effective solutions to not only resurrect and strengthen healthcare machinery, but to build futuristic systems. In such a scenario, tele-medicine has finally received its due credit and experiencing massive adoption across nations and specialities. According to government data, 60 percent of the hospitals in the country are in urban areas, home to just about 32 percent of India. India currently has 0.8 physicians for every 1,000 people, compared to World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation of one per 1,000. Teleconsultations and telemedicine, therefore, has the potential to provide “healthcare to all”. It has been identified as a potent solution to solve for numerous healthcare problems of nations irrespective of their size, clinical prowess and technology or infrastructure development levels.

Telemedicine as a concept is well understood and established in urban India. Thanks to Govt. impetus, internet penetration and awareness drives by private healthcare providers during the challenging times of COVID, it became a huge fall-back option for patients and clinicians even in the tier II and III towns and cities. The Indian Govt. realised the power of telemedicine and established the National Telemedicine Taskforce (by the Health Ministry of India) in the year 2005. Projects like the ICMR-AROGYASREE, NeHA and VRCs were successfully launched and executed to promote adoption of tele-medicine. While numerous reports highlight the increasing adoption for the medium post COVID, it is time that India realises the power and scope of telemedicine as a holistic medium.

From real time consultations (primary and second opinions), to enabling virtual medical tourism (inbound and outbound), to diagnostics and disease screening, to disaster management relief, to educational healthcare delivery and upskilling of clinicians, to general awareness building and much more, tele-medicine is one stop solution for numerous healthcare needs. With allied innovations like portable healthcare trackers to wearable fitness monitors, to mobile applications, to growing scope of tele-diagnostics and more, consultations via audio-visual mode are becoming even more effective. Gone are the days, when ENT, internal medicine and dermatology were some limited imaginable specialities covered via teleconsultations. Today, doctors and patients are comfortably adopting tele-consulting mediums for some of the most complex super specialities like Oncology, Urology, and Cardiology successfully. As per SeekMed data, super specialities like Cardiology (150%), Orthopaedics (167%), Psychiatry (400%) and Gastroenterology (344%) saw a significant increase of triple digit percentage in tele consults during the COVID period – compared with the previous quarter of the same year.

India’s leading Oncologist Dr. Harit Chaturvedi, of Max Institute of Cancer Care feels, “Patients are well informed and are no longer passive participants for their health care needs. They are expecting more transparency, convenience, access, and personalized products and services. This is driving fundamental changes to the healthcare infrastructure and delivery to make it more patient driven. With a large educated and technology friendly population, India is now ready to take tele- consultations to the next level and utilize it for complex super specialities as well.” As per SeekMed data, Oncology tele-consults saw a sharp spike of 400% during the COVID period. This behavioural change and adoption in the patient community is here to stay and will only impact the healthcare sector positively in times to come:

  •  The clinicians unanimously agree that telemedicine has a significant potential w.r.t super specialities as patients suffering from complex conditions are mostly immune compromised. Minimising their exposure to a high-infection location like a large hospital is the first step towards their safety.
  • Secondly, consulting via digital modes not only saves time and money but also offers convenience and comfort to the patient. Digital consults eliminate waiting period which is an accepted norm in India and can be very painful for some fragile patients and their care takers.
  • And, last and most important is the scope of tele-medicine for seeking expert second opinions from the best in class clinicians, not only domestically but also from across the globe.

It is imperative to understand that getting expert second opinions is becoming a norm. It is no longer a luxury in the healthcare journey of a patient nor reserved for a fortunate few. Healthcare experts strongly recommend that patients should seek second opinion from specialists before taking next steps for any critical and complicated procedure. A 2018 study published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology found that an expert second review changed the diagnosis for 43% of the 70 patients in the study. In 2017, another study showed that 21% of patients who sought second opinion at Mayo Clinic in USA left with a completely new diagnosis and 66% were deemed partly correct but refined by the second doctor. Getting timely second opinion from super specialists can not only save lives but also help patients take better control of their medical decisions. Telemedicine can be a great enabler in such decision-making by empowering patients and adding significant value in their healthcare journey.

Alok Awasthi is Founder, SeekMed. – Business World