Leverage the potential of ‘Telemedicine’ to effectively address the healthcare needs of India

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined telemedicine as follows:

“The delivery of healthcare services, where distance is a critical factor, by all healthcare 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 continuing education of healthcare providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities”

Telemedicine is gradually becoming popular in India, like in many other countries of the world. This emerging technology based healthcare service, will surely meet the unmet needs of the patients located in the far flung areas, by providing them access to medical specialists for treatment of even tertiary level of their ailments, without requiring to travel outside their villages or small towns where they reside. Telemedicine is, therefore, slowly but gradually emerging as a convenient and cost-effective way of treating even complicated diseases of the rural population.

The applications of Telemedicine:

1. To extend affordable quality healthcare services to those places where these are not available due to basic healthcare infrastructure and delivery issues.

2. Electronic transmission of clinical information of both synchronous and asynchronous types, involving voice and data transfer of patients to distantly located experts and get their treatment advice, online.

3. To effectively train the medics and the paramedics located in distant places and proper management of healthcare delivery/service systems.

4. Disaster management.

The Process:

The process can be:

- ‘Real time’ or synchronous when through a telecommunication link real time interaction between the patients and doctors/experts can take place. This technology can be used even for tele-robotic surgery.

- ‘Non-real time’ or asynchronous type when through a telecommunication link, stored diagnostics/medical data and other details of the patients are transmitted to the specialists for off-line assessment and advice at a time of convenience of the specialists.

These processes facilitate access to specialists’ healthcare services by the rural patients and the rural medical practitioners reducing avoidable travel time and related expenses. At the same time such interaction helps upgrading the knowledge of the rural medical practitioners and paramedics.

The Promise:

‘Telemedicine’ is capable of taking modern healthcare to remote rural areas using Information Technology (IT), as specialists are mostly based in the cities. As majority of the diseases do not require surgery, ‘telemedicine’ will prove to be very conducive to such patients and economical too.
Relevance of Telemedicine in India:

With its over 1.12 billion population and equally huge and not so well addressed disease burden, spreading across distant and remote semi-urban and rural areas where over 70 per cent of the population of the country lives, India by any standard is a country, which should focus on ‘Telemedicine’ to meet the unmet healthcare needs of the common man.

Telemedicine, therefore, is very relevant for the country, as it faces a scarcity of both hospitals and medical specialists. In India for every 10,000 of the population just 0.6 doctors is available. According to the Planning Commission, India is short of 600,000 doctors, 10 lakh nurses and 200,000 dental surgeons. Over 72 percent of Indians live in rural areas where facilities of healthcare are still grossly inadequate. Most of the specialists are reluctant to go to the rural areas. In addition, 80 percent of doctors, 75 percent of dispensaries and 60 percent of hospitals, are situated in urban India.

Telemedicine should be leveraged to bridge the gap of healthcare divide:

Equitable access to healthcare is the overriding goal of the National Health Policy 2002. Telemedicine has a great potential to ensure that the inequities in the access to healthcare services are adequately addressed by the country.

ISRO and the progress of Telemedicine in India:

The concept of ‘Telemedicine’ is relatively new in India and started drawing attention of the Government since 1999, when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) deploying a SATCOM-based telemedicine network took its pioneering step towards this direction and is currently playing a key role in the evolution and development of ‘telemedicine’ in India. ISRO with its effective application of world class satellite communication technology with modern medical science and information technology has engaged itself very seriously to ensure availability of specialty healthcare services right at the doorsteps of a vast majority of deprived population living even in the distant and remote places of the rural India.

Government and private initiatives:

Since then the Ministry of Health and Family welfare with its initiative through information technology in some country level projects forming the National Telemedicine Taskforce, some private healthcare institutions like Apollo and various State Governments like, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and West Bengal also took admirable initiatives to translate the concept of ‘telemedicine’ into reality, especially for the rural India.

Subsequently, private telemedicine solution providers have now started coming-up, in a very sporadic manner though. Active participation of the civil society and meaningful Public private Partnership (PPP) projects are essential not only to get engaged in creating awareness for ‘telemedicine’ within India, but also to ensure that required blend of a high quality of technical and medical manpower that the country currently possesses are effectively utilized to establish India as a pioneering nation and a model to emulate in the field of telemedicine.

The market of Telemedicine in India:

Frost & Sullivan has estimated the telemedicine market of India at US$3.4 million, which is expected to record a CAGR of over 21 percent between 2007 and 2014.

Practices of Telemedicine in India:

Not only the central government of India, many state governments and private players are also entering into telemedicine in a big way with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) playing a pivotal role, as indicated earlier. Some of the encouraging examples are as follows:

Telemedicine in Tamil Nadu:

Wi-Fi video conferencing network has now enabled ophthalmologists in the country to treat patients located in distant rural areas.

For example in an eye clinic in Andipatti village of Tamil Nadu state patients are connected through an inexpensive Wi-Fi video conferencing network with an ophthalmologist located about 15 kilometers away at the Aravind Eye Hospital in the city of Theni, for diagnosis and treatment of ophthalmological conditions. It has been reported that in the last six years eight such vision centers have been opened in the Theni district to provide eye treatment through ‘telemedicine’ to the affected population. These centers are managed by ophthalmic assistants trained to conduct a full eye examination, administer diagnostic tests, treat simple ailments and prescribe glasses. An ophthalmologist located as far away as 150 kilometers gives the final advice to the patients through videoconferencing and incurring a fraction of the expenses of what the patient would have otherwise incurred for getting treated at the district hospital of Theni.

World Health Organization (WHO) in its recent report has highlighted that about one third of the 45 million blind population of the world, live in India with majority of the causes being easily treatable cataracts and diabetes. It is worth mentioning that India has pledged to eliminate avoidable blindness in 10 years, under WHO 2020 initiative.

The Government of India is contemplating to create 20,000 more rural vision centers in the next few years.

Telemedicine in Kerala:

In Kerala selected referral Telemedicine Centers which are ‘Taluk Hospitals’ are connected to the Specialty hospitals through ISDN dial-up connection and the Telemedicine software MERCURY for creating and transferring the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) from sources like ECG, Microscope and Scanner.

A Telemedicine system for Cancer Patients called ‘CancerNet’ has also been created in the state for cancer detection, treatment, pain relief ,patient follow-up and continuity of care in peripheral hospitals (nodal centers) of Regional Cancer Centre (RCC). This facility connects RCC, Trivandrum and five nodal outreach centers. More than 3000 patients are treated or consulted in these nodal centers offering significant financial benefits to patients.

The specialty centers are located at:

• Medical College Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram
• Sree Chitra Thirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram
• Regional Cancer Center,Thiruvananthapuram
• Mental Health Centre, Thiruvananthapuram

The remote nodal centers are located at:

• Taluk Hospital, Neyyattinkara
• Taluk headquarters Hospital, Quilandy
• Taluk Hospital, Mavelikkara
• Taluk Hospital, Vythiri, Wayanad

Telemedicine in Andhra Pradesh:

Among the private initiatives the Apollo group of hospitals took a pioneering initiative in ‘telemedicine’ with a pilot project at a secondary level hospital in Aragonda village located about16 km away from the town Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh, covering a population of 5000.

Telemedicine in West Bengal:

Telemedicine for Tropical Diseases utilizing Technology developed by WEBEL & IIT Kharagpur has been developed by the state for diagnosis and monitoring of skin and blood related tropical diseases in West Bengal. The facility has been installed in School of Tropical Medicine, Kolkata and two District Hospitals. This is now being upgraded and extended to cover two referral hospitals and four District hospitals.

Telemedicine in North Eastern States:

A facility of Telemedicine Solution is being developed in Kohima Hospital of Nagaland under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Government of Nagaland, Marubeni India Ltd, Apollo Hospitals and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Two telemedicine centers are being set up connecting hospitals in the capitals of the North-eastern states, Sikkim and Tripura with super-specialty hospital under Community Information Centre scheme of DIT. North Eastern Council of India is planning to cover all 75 districts in seven states through Telemedicine.

Allocate more fund for Telemedicine:

Telemedicine now shows an immense potential, within the frugal healthcare infrastructure of India, to catapult rural healthcare services, especially secondary and tertiary, to a different level altogether. Current data indicate that over 278 hospitals in India have already been provided with telemedicine facilities. 235 small hospitals including those in rural areas are now connected to 43 specialty hospitals. ISRO provides the hospitals with telemedicine systems including software, hardware, communication equipment and even satellite bandwidth.

In 1999, India based one of the largest healthcare providers in Asia, The Apollo Hospitals Group also entered into telemedicine space. Today, the group has quite successfully established over 115 telemedicine locations in India, It has been reported that a ‘tele-consultation’ between the experts and the rural center ranges from 15 to 30 minutes in these facilities.

The state governments and private hospitals are now required to allocate adequate funds to further develop and improve penetration of Telemedicine facilities in India.

Issues with Telemedicine in India:

- Telemedicine is not free from various complicated legal, social, technical and consumer related issues, which need to be addressed urgently.

- Many a time, doctors feel that for Telemedicine they need to work extra hours without commensurate monetary compensation, as per their expectations.

- The myth created that setting up and running a Telemedicine facility is expensive needs to be broken, as all these costs can be easily recovered by any hospital through nominal charges to the patients.

- Inadequate and uninterrupted availability of power supply could limit proper functioning of a telemedicine center.

- High quality of Telemedicine related voice and data transfer is of utmost importance. Any compromise in this area may have significant impact on the treatment outcome of a patient.

- Lack of trained manpower for Telemedicine can be addressed by making it a part of regular medical college curriculum.

- Legal implications, if arise, out of any Telemedicine treatment need to be clearly articulated.

- A system needs to be worked out to prevent any possible misuse or abuse of the confidential Telemedicine treatment data of a patient.

- Reimbursement procedure of Telemedicine treatment costs by the medical insurance companies needs to be effectively addressed.

Conclusion:

Because of a very large population of India living in remote and distant rural areas, ‘telemedicine’ would play a very special and critical role in India to address the healthcare needs of the common man. With increasing coverage of telemedicine, it is imperative that required regulatory standards and guidelines for the same is put in place across the country.

Some significant and path breaking advances have indeed been made in the field of ‘telemedicine’ in India. It is though unfortunate that enough awareness for an optimal spread of this critical facility has been created, as yet to address the healthcare needs of a vast majority of the population in India, effectively. The pioneering role that ISRO has been playing in this field is also not known to many. All powerful ‘Fourth Estate’, I reckon, should now take more interest to initiate a healthy discussion and debate on this important healthcare solution, within the civil society.

By Tapan 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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