The healthcare ecosystem today is a system of extremes. While our understanding of the human body and disease has grown by leaps and bounds, our healthcare systems, i.e., the way we treat patients is firmly tethered to the mid-20th century. Patient treatments continue to be reactive and siloed when they actually need to be preventive and connected. As a result of this, universal health coverage remains a distant dream for many countries across the globe. However, just like innovative technology is catalysing change in several other industries, in healthcare too, it can prove to be a panacea for several challenges ranging from limited access and inadequate capacity to insufficient patient data and poor quality of care.
An uneven healthcare ecosystem
The current healthcare system in India is fragmented, inefficient, and bureaucratic. This has led to India scoring poorly on several health dimensions. For example, India ranks 145th among 195 countries on the Healthcare Access and Quality Index (HAQ) (source: The Lancet: Measuring performance on the Healthcare Access and Quality Index for 195 countries and territories and selected subnational locations; May 2018 ). Further, the care provided is siloed and disparate with the system not creating a conducive environment for different caregivers to talk to each other. Indians face four major barriers in receiving adequate healthcare. These include (source):
Limited Access: Even though almost 65% of India’s population resides in rural India, it has access to only 30% of the total available health infrastructure – consisting of around 25% dispensaries, approximately 40% hospitals, and only 20% doctors and 3% specialists.
Inadequate Capacity: India has 1.3 beds per 1000 population as against World Health Organization (WHO) minimum norm of 3.5. Further, the country has only 0.69 doctors per 1000 population as against WHO recommended 1.0 and an average of 3.4 in OECD countries.
Poor Quality Care: Almost 122 Indians per 100,000 die due to poor quality of care each year. This is much higher when compared to other countries such as Brazil (74), Russia (91), China (46), and South Africa (93). Even our neighbors Pakistan (119), Nepal (93), Bangladesh (57), and Sri Lanka (51) fare better than us.
Limited affordability for the less affluent population: Financial constraint is cited as the primary reason for not seeking medical advice for ailments, resulting in poorer health outcomes. This challenge is further compounded by lack of insurance.
HealthTech precipitating a patient-led revolution
Given the integral role that optimal healthcare plays in a country’s economic growth and reconstruction by reducing healthcare costs and improving quality of life, it becomes imperative that we address the challenges in the system with emergency. In that regard, emerging HealthTech solutions are alleviating some of the pain points:
Data: Since probably the beginning of medicine, the healthcare community, and more specifically doctors, have been gathering data about patients’ ailments, medications, health histories, etc. However, so far, this data has not been optimally leveraged. The Medical Internet of Things is changing this to usher in a new paradigm of improved diagnostics and continuum of care through data analytics. It is allowing data from digital health technologies like sensors in cars, wearables used by people, apps, and genomic data to be captured and integrated with shared infrastructure like the Electronic Health Systems (EHS) of hospitals or digital platforms. Combined with intelligent software powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), this data can be further analysed to identify health emergencies in patients and provide real-time insights, thereby helping physicians recommend the most effective treatment or course of action.
Interactions: Digital interfaces are elevating the users’ journey and making interactions more meaningful and customized. According to a BCG report, 5 crore Indians accessed teleconsultation services between March 1 – May 31st, 2020. Further, 85% clinicians used teleconsultation and digital platforms during the lockdown (source). Clearly, technology is elevating the patient – caregiver interactions. Previously, patient interactions were mainly one-way and reactive where doctors treated patients only after they had a problem. However, innovative technological solutions, some as simple as teleconsultations, are enabling a revolution in doctor-patient interactions and facilitating two-way interactions where patients are more aware of their health and well-being and are in constant conversations with their health providers. The ultimate benefit of such interactions will be the ability to take proactive measures to maintain good health and stave off illnesses. Further, it will also empower individuals with chronic ailments to improve their quality of life without increasing healthcare spending.
A digital healthcare ecosystem
Despite the prevailing gaps, India has taken significant steps towards achieving universal healthcare. The government has launched several schemes like Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY), Ayushman Bharat-National Health Protection Mission, Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCH+A), Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK), etc., to make healthcare affordable. Technology can augment this further by making it accessible and qualitative. In an attempt to leverage technological healthcare solutions, the Indian Government recently announced the launch of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) that aims to create an “open digital health ecosystem (health ODE)”. The goal is to create a shared digital infrastructure that can be leveraged by both public and private enterprises to build and provide new, and innovative healthcare solutions. Its key building blocks will include standardized health registries, a unique patient identity, federated health records, interoperability, and automatic claim settlement engines (source).
HealthTech is building robust bridges within the healthcare ecosystem to better connect patients, healthcare providers, hospitals, and insurance companies to resolve for prevailing challenges. The integration of healthcare with technology is not only engendering more customised, intuitive, and seamless healthcare systems but also revolutionising the way we perceive healthcare. From smart pills that enable easier health monitoring and drug delivery to wearables that can detect anxiety and depression, the future of healthtech is poised to break several barriers. As the coming decade unfolds, companies focusing on smart health will be able to improve the quality of care, increase access and affordability, and lower costs.