‘Digi Gaon’: Will It Augment Access To Affordable Health Care In India?

In the Union Budget speech of 2017-18, Indian Finance Minister articulated his intent, among several others, to launch a new initiative named ‘Digi Gaon’, which would extend the broadband digital technology in rural India. Besides education and skills, ‘Digi Gaon’ would facilitate affordable access to e-healthcare in the in the hinterland of the country.

“Under the Bharat Net, optical fiber has been laid in 1,55,000 km. I have stepped up the allocation for Bharat Net projects to Rs 10,000 crore in 2017-18 and by the end of 2017-18, high speed broadband on optical fiber will be available in more than 1.5 lakh gram Panchayats with hotspots and access to digital services at low tariff,” the Finance Minister said.

“This will give a major fillip to mobilizing broadband and Digital India, for the benefit of people living in rural areas,” he further added.

Increased penetration of ‘Telemedicine’, per se, in the country has the potential to improving time, cost and the quality of access to affordable health care in rural India, as confirmed by several important studies.

A broad perspective:

A report of the World Health Organization (W.H.O), titled “Telemedicine – Opportunities and developments in the Member States”, states that the term ‘Telemedicine’, was coined in the 1970s, which literally means “healing at a distance”. It signifies the use of modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), such as computers, the Internet, and cell phones, to improve patient outcomes by increasing access to care and medical information.

Recognizing that there is no one definitive definition of ‘Telemedicine’ – a 2007 W.H.O study, after reviewing 104 peer-reviewed definitions of this word, adopted the following broad description:

“The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities”

‘Telemedicine’ in India:

Before I get into other relevant details in this area, let me briefly explore in which segments of the three important areas – Market, Services and Providers, ‘Telemedicine’ has already started working in India, though with a varying degree of success.

 Market segments:

‘Telemedicine Market’ in India can broadly be segmented into nine key categories. A recent research report on “India E-Health Services Market Outlook to 2020” by Ken Research captures the top three of these segments as follows:

  • Tele-radiology: The top segment in India that involves the electronic transmission of radiographic images of patients, such as, X-Ray, CT scan or MRI from one location to another location for an expert interpretation by a radiologist sitting there to quickly facilitate appropriate treatment.
  • Tele-consultation: Ranked second in terms of revenue earning of the Indian telemedicine industry in 2015. It involves establishing a clear audio and video communication link between the patient and doctors of different disciplines, as required. Patients’ demand for online consultations with the doctors is fast increasing as it helps to get disease specific medical advice from the different experts located anywhere in the world.
  • Tele-ICU: Was ranked as the third largest segment. It involves the use of an off-site command center in which a critical care team (intensivists and critical care nurses) connects with patients in distant ICUs to exchange health information through real-time audio, visual, and electronic means.

The following are the other six segments, which I am presenting below with a brief definition of each, for convenience:

  • Tele-ophthalmology: It delivers eye care through digital medical equipment and on telecommunications technology platforms.
  • Tele-dermatology: It involves communication technology to connect patients with dermatologists to improve skin health. The technology allows the patient to be examined and even treated without making a physical trip to a dermatologist.
  • Tele-surgery: It is the ability for a doctor to help perform surgery on a patient even though they are not physically in the same location. It is a form of telepresence.
  • Tele-pathology: It involves the practice of pathology at a distance using telecommunications technology to facilitate the transfer of image-rich pathology data between distant locations for the purposes of diagnosis, education, and research.
  • Tele-psychiatry: it is the application of telemedicine to the specialty field of psychiatry. The term typically describes the delivery of psychiatric assessment and care through telecommunications technology, usually video-conferencing.
  • Tele-Home Care and Nursing: This is primarily meant for patients who prefer receiving various health care services at home, such as those suffering from serious chronic diseases, post-surgery, and to cater to the critical regular heath needs of elderly persons.

Service segments:

Similarly, various international literature has segmented the ‘Telemedicine services’ into two broad types, as hereunder:

  • Real Time telemedicine services: These services include telephonic call or video-conferencing where both the doctors and the patients need to be present at the same time, and real time interaction happens between them.
  • Store and Forward telemedicine services: These do not require both the doctor and the patient be present at the same time and transmission and assessment of the medical records can be done at any convenient time.

Types of Providers:

Ken Research Report categorized the ‘Telemedicine Providers’ available in India into the following three groups:

  • Private Hospitals, such as Apollo Tele Health Services, Narayana Health Telemedicine Centers and Aravind Eye Care and telemedicine centers of Medanta, besides others.
  • Government Hospitals and Medical Colleges, such as, AIIMS, SGPGI and several others have made alliances with various districts and sub-district hospitals of different states in India. Some States such as Punjab, Gujarat and Uttarakhand have adopted a PPP model.
  • NGO run centers, such as, World Health Partners are the largest NGO in India that has 1100 with a market share of 56.1 percent.

The critical barriers to overcome:

There are several critical barriers to the rapid penetration of ‘Telemedicine’ in India. However, in this article, I shall discuss only five of those, which India has not cared much to resolve over a long period, and need to be addressed, sooner than later:

  • Frugal broadband Internet network:

Probably realizing that this stark reality still exists, despite earlier initiatives of ‘Digital      India’ slogan, the Finance Minister in his 2017-18 budget speech announced a fresh budget allocation for the new ‘Digi Gaon’ project.

An efficient broadband Internet is an absolute must for any efficient ‘Telemedicine’ project, as most of the applications of ‘Telemedicine’, as mentioned above, would work effectively only in that environment. In 2016, India’s broadband Internet penetration was an abysmal 7 percent, as reported in a white paper of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and quoted by the chairperson of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

  • High initial cost of setting up a telemedicine network:

The initial cost of setting up a viable ‘Telemedicine’ network, including training of personnel, developing user-friendly smartphone-based apps with state of the art technology, is high with low current Return on Investments (ROI).

  • Availability and training of personnel:

- At the village end: Availability of proper technician, other IT staff and qualified local doctors and their periodic training and performance assessment.

- At the consulting centers: Appropriate training, coordination with other relevant staff and administration as required for compliance and monitoring performance standard.

  • No legal framework governing Telemedicine in India:

At present, there is no legal framework in India governing Telemedicine of the country. The Government would need to urgently consider this issue, as it creates related facilities and infrastructure in the country.

  • Lack of revenue generating business models for sustainability:

In India, ‘Telemedicine’ is generally considered as a part of ‘social responsibility’ of public, private, large corporate hospitals and NGOs. In the some of the private hospitals it is alleged that the underlying objective is to raise the bed occupancy rate when the patients on ‘Telemedicine’ require hospitalization.

Currently, there exists a dearth of revenue generating business models for ‘Telemedicine’ in India, taking it beyond the realm of just ‘social responsibility’, and enabling it to play an increasing role in the overall health care space for long-term sustainability, with a win-win outcome for both its investors and patients.

Thus, the Government would require playing the role of an enabler to encourage, attract and support more and more private players and startups coming up with sustainable commercial business models in this area. Simultaneously, it should also play an active role to help increase public awareness in ‘Telemedicine’, eliminating patient inhibition, enhancing competition and reducing patients’ cost for various services.

Is ‘Affordable health care’ a victim of circumstances?

India with its public spend as a percentage of GDP on health care being consistently one of the lowest in the world over a period of a very long time, despite being the fastest growing global economy, the importance of high penetration of ‘Telemedicine’ in the country assumes a high importance. More so, when grossly inadequate public health care facilities continue to pose serious health risks for many of the country’s population.

On the other hand, in Indian private health care space, including drugs and pharmaceuticals, where a sizeable section of global pharma players and their lobbyists are continually pushing hard, predominantly an Intellectual Property (IP) orientated blatant self-serving agenda. They want to sell more of high price monopoly products and services to earn more and more profit, depriving a huge majority of local patients. It’s happening, even when the image of the global pharma industry has plunged to a new low, and is still going south, despite tons of money allegedly being spent on lobbying of various nature, more than ever before.

No wonder, why the globally acclaimed doyen of the IT industry – Mr. Narayana Murthy also openly acknowledged this fact, suggesting some science and technology based remedial measures. While addressing the Bio Asia 2017 on February 08, 2017 in Hyderabad he said: “India has fallen behind in healthcare, but science and technology can indeed play a role in bridging the gaps. Science and technology can play a key role in diagnosis and management of disease, of mass application of drugs and availability of drugs on a scale and at an affordable cost,” as reported in the Economic Times.

Thus, sandwiched between either side, ‘Affordable health care’ continues to remain a major victim of the circumstances, and is desperately looking for a strong Government intervention, just as what’s now happening in several developed countries, including the United States.

Conclusion:

Although ‘Telemedicine’ is an important enabler and enhancer, I reckon, it’s not a panacea. It would never replace brick and mortar high quality generally affordable health care facilities, along with affordable modern life saving medicines, any time in the foreseeable future.

The announcement of ‘Digi Gaon’ to facilitate ‘Telemedicine’ in India, without a well-charted roadmap and overcoming its critical success barriers, is intriguing. Nevertheless, this initiative has an underlying potential to transform ‘Telemedicine’ into a robust revenue generating model, even at the village level entrepreneurship, with sharp application of creative minds.

It’s a matter of great concern that in the space of Governance in India, public health care is increasingly becoming more a subject of a general lip service, rather than immaculate execution of a robust, comprehensive, time-bound National Health Policy with assigned accountability for each project and backed by requisite budgetary allocation, both by the Central and the State Governments. Consequently, one would seldom witness any such well hyped announcements on various public health care projects seldom coming to fruition on the ground, as promised.

Even if the recently announced ‘Digi Gaon’ initiative is considered as a standalone project for greater access to ‘Telemedicine’ in the hinterland of the country, it is important to understand that, in the short term, investment in ‘Telemedicine’ won’t be a magic wand for India to demonstrate a commensurate increase in health outcomes, along with reaping its consequential economic benefits.

To succeed in this area, several critical barriers need to be effectively overcome, soon. This would help showcasing ‘Telemedicine’ as an integral part of everyday e-health care solution for many. Otherwise, the Government is likely to face enormous challenges to leverage the true potential of ‘Digi Gaon’ for alleviation of acute miseries caused by poor, or lack of access to affordable health care, especially in rural India.

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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