Eric Topol, a leading cardiologist who has embraced the study of genomics and the latest advances in technology to treat chronic disease says, “We’ll soon use our smartphones to monitor our vital signs and chronic conditions in future.”
By clicking on this video clipping, you can watch how Dr. Topol in his talk titled “The Wireless Future of Medicine”, highlights several of the most important wireless devices in medicine’s future – all helping to keep more patients out of hospital beds.
In achieving similar objectives, India’s potential is indeed immense. The good news is, though in India Internet penetration has just crossed 16 percent of its total population, in absolute numbers this percentage reportedly works out to nearly 10 times the population of Australia. According to a report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) and IMRB, there will be around 243 million internet users in India by June 2014, overtaking the US as the world’s second largest internet base after China. This situation must be leveraged to improve access to healthcare in the country significantly.
‘Remote Healthcare Delivery Solutions (RHDS)’
However, for several other reasons the situation is quite challenging in India. Out of its total population of over 1.2 billion, nearly 72.2 percent live in the hinterland and remote rural areas spreading across over 700,000 villages. In all these places, despite huge prevalence of diseases, inadequate healthcare infrastructure and delivery mechanisms offer an ideal backdrop to explore innovative healthcare solutions such as, ‘Remote Healthcare Delivery Solutions (RHDS)’ or ‘Telemedicine’. In that endeavor, smartphones could play a key role in improving access to healthcare for a very large number of population.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined ‘Telemedicine’ as:
“The use of information and communications technology (ICT) to deliver healthcare, particularly in settings where access to medical services is insufficient.”
Thus, to effectively improve access to healthcare, especially in rural India, RHDS holds a great promise.
A complex mix:
Healthcare space in India is generally a complex mix of issues related to access, availability, affordability and quality of healthcare, compounded by inadequate public healthcare infrastructure and delivery system on the one hand and expensive private healthcare facilities on the other. The degree of this complexity is rather stark in rural areas.
In a situation like this, RHDS holds a great promise to satisfy healthcare needs of the hinterland and rural India, as this would entail effective medical care, despite understaffed Primary Healthcare Centers (PHCs) and undertrained healthcare staff, with low start-up costs.
Equipped with modern Internet enabled technologies, RHDS would facilitate transmission of patient related information through SMS, email, audio, video, or other image transmissions, like MRI and CT Scans to relevant specialists of different disciplines of medical sciences located in other places. With RHDS, these specialists can monitor even blood pressure or blood glucose levels of patients on computer screens without examining them in person.
The key advantages of a structured and well committed implementation of RHDS or ‘Telemedicine’ in india are as follows:
- Elimination of many costs, including travel expenses for specialists and patient transfers – especially in a critical health situation, improving access to quality healthcare.
- Reduction of feeling of isolation of the rural medical practitioners by upgrading their knowledge through Tele-education or Tele-Continuing Medical Education (CME) programs.
RHDS in India:
In India, RHDS initiative in form of telemedicine commenced more than a decade ago in 1999, when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) deployed a SATCOM-based telemedicine network across the country. ISRO’s telemedicine program has now been reportedly enhanced to multi-point systems with a network of 400 centers across India.
The good news is, besides Department of Information Technology, the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and many state governments, some well-reputed medical and technical institutes, corporates and academia have also started taking active interest in this area, especially oriented for the rural population of India.
In this context it is worth mentioning that in March 2014, Biocon Foundation reportedly partnered with Canara Bank and the Odisha Government for an e-healthcare program that aims at setting up of diagnostic facilities in PHCs to improve healthcare access to 51,000 villages.
Simultaneously, the Department of Information Technology has put in place the ‘Standards for Telemedicine Systems’ and the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare has constituted the National Telemedicine Task Force to provide further thrust to RHDS in India,.
To cite an example, US based World Health Partners (WHP) have reportedly set up an extensive Tele-Medicine network in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), which has received almost 35,000 calls in two years requesting for services. After receiving the calls, the patients requiring intervention were directed to WHP’s franchisee clinics in the respective areas. This model included three areas namely, Meerut, Bijnor and Muzzafarnagar.
Apollo group, Narayana Hruduyalaya, Aravind Eye Hospital and Asia Heart Foundation are also running similar system in India. Unfortunately, none of these or even all put together can extend such facilities to patients across the whole of India, just yet.
According to a report of Infinity research the global market for telemedicine is around US$ 9 billion with a CAGR of 20 percent. However, another report quoting KSA Technopak indicates that the Indian market is currently relatively very small with a market size of around US$ 7.5 Million. Considering future growth opportunities, as deliberated here, RHDS market holds a great promise.
Telemedicine or RHDS market is classified based on the type of technology and services used and usually analyzed on the basis of telemedicine applications, such as Tele-consultation, Tele-cardiology or Tele-dermatology etc. However, Tele-consultation reportedly dominates the telemedicine services market.
To give an idea of its market potential, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) telemedicine market was reportedly at US$ 200.5 million in 2009 and was expected to expand at a CAGR of 15.8 percent from 2009 to 2014.
The telemedicine technology market segment forms the largest segment of the overall BRIC telemedicine market and is expected to be US$ 307.4 million by end 2014 with a CAGR of 16.6 percent from 2009 to 2014. The services segment in the overall BRIC telemedicine market is expected to reach US$ 111 million in 2014 with a CAGR of 13.8 percent.
The Challenges in India:
Again there are following two critical challenges in this areas:
- The biggest challenge is undoubtedly the broadband Internet connectivity.
- Transmitting patients’ medical records through Internet could infringe upon patient privacy giving rise to ethics related issues, besides avoidable litigations.
I reckon, these concerns can be well addressed, if both the private healthcare providers and the Government together resolve and chart a time-bound pathway to improve access to quality healthcare in a cost effective manner to a large majority of Indian population.
Various public and private RHDS solution providers are gradually getting actively engaged, though incoherent way, to create awareness about telemedicine in the country. This brings with it a never before hope of ensuring access to quality healthcare to almost the entire population of the country.
A survey conducted in the United States highlighted that 85 percent of patients expressed satisfaction with their telemedicine consultation. Back home in India, a similar study in Odisha reported a satisfaction rate as high as 99 percent post telemedicine consultation.
Having a large base of medical and IT manpower with requisite expertise in RHDS, India holds a great promise to become a major telemedicine hub even for its neighboring countries, transforming the healthcare delivery scenario in all those places significantly.
Bundling all these, together with the increasing use of Internet enabled smartphones as explained by Dr. Eric Topol in his video clipping above, RHDS does offer a simmering promise in an otherwise despondent healthcare scenario of 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.