India has made great progress on life expectancy — it has risen by 12 years to 68.8 since 1990.But its healthcare system still struggles to keep up with basic needs. Hospitals are overcrowded. Doctors are in short supply. Patients share beds. In smaller hospitals, several operations are conducted at once in operating theatres. Most medical resources are geared towards urban areas, where only a third of the population resides.
Across the country, primary healthcare centres, the first point of contact for millions, are afflicted by shortages and disrepair. And many patients view modern medicine as far too distant and unfamiliar. The dysfunctional system actively discourages people from seeking needed medical treatment until it is too late.
These factors exacerbate an already precarious situation. India has only half the number of doctors required to meet the World Health Organization standard of one doctor for every 1,000 people. Addressing this gap is likely to take decades. Added to this, many doctors spend hours logging appointments, taking notes and filing paperwork; as little as half their time is used to treat patients.
At the same time, the largest causes of illness and death in India are chronic ailments such as diabetes and heart disease, which are linked to lifestyle and require periodic visits to a health facility. Primary care providers are vital to early detection and treatment, but they need sufficient personnel and resources.
We at Tata see a solution — not just for India, but for other countries struggling to allocate capacity and resources. Technology enables us to reimagine jobs in the healthcare industry, allowing workers to upgrade their capabilities. Online communication makes virtual consultations with patients possible, giving more people outside cities access to primary care and levelling up the current inconsistent quality.
We believe this will work because Tata Consultancy Services has been running a healthcare pilot programme in Kolar, a district of 1.5m outside Bengaluru, since 2018. It provides particularly compelling results.
Two rooms in an old sanatorium in Kolar were refitted with computers, phones, videoconferencing facilities and servers. Tablets and smartphones were given to comparatively unskilled workers and plugged in to a tech layer that synthesised disparate data systems — doctor and bed availability, patient health records, prescriptions and test results, among others — and provided real-time communication across different devices on the network.
Community health workers have travelled the district with their tablets and gathered data from villagers, asking questions designed to identify undiagnosed diseases. This has helped create a register of patient information vital for functional primary health services, making it possible to predict health scares and disease outbreaks.
Kolar doctors use an app called the Clinicograph to take a quick, comprehensive look at each individual’s health records prior to consultation so patients need not provide their entire medical history each time. Medical advice can be given quickly, without patients having to travel long distances. Doctors do not have to waste precious time going through disparate notes from various clinics — it is all in one app, on one page.
The results are tangible. Patients who would previously have delayed seeking care began turning up at the first sign of trouble. In the few months the system has been at work, visits to primary health centres have increased by 55 per cent.
Given India’s size, even tiny improvements make a huge difference. If we could automate and reassign tasks as we did in Kolar across the nation, we could bridge more than 80 per cent of the gap between the number of doctors India will have by 2030 and the additional 500,000 it needs. We could also create 1m new healthcare jobs and make 1m workers more productive.
Such thinking could go beyond healthcare. By 2030, our farmers, teachers, doctors, truck drivers, and judges could be using the invisible net of technology to make India a better, easier place to live. We can be at the forefront of a revolution that will change the nature of life and work in developing nations, and prepare them to meet the demands of their growing populations for decades to come.- Financial Times