Would “Digital Health Equity” Augment Healthcare For All in India?

A June 2014 report titled “Digital Health Equity: Humanizing e-Health” published by ‘ZeroDivide’, which helps transform communities through technology in the United States, highlighted that the digital revolution of daily life has significantly impacted healthcare in many parts of the world.

As a result, the relationship between the consumers and healthcare providers has just begun to change significantly, though in bits and pieces at present. Wherever it is happening, the consumers expect to get highly engaged in managing their own health, primarily using online and mobile tools and other devices.

“Digital Health”/ “e-Health” to ensure equity in healthcare:

Advancement in e-Health is currently restricted mainly to economically and socially privileged populations. Those with the access, resources and basic digital skills are reaping disproportionate benefits from the technology and other associated infrastructure available for this purpose.

Unfortunately, underserved population, mostly in rural hinterland and some in urban areas still do not have much access to this technical advancement in the healthcare space.

Ensuring “Digital Health” in the new age digital India, would help augmenting quality healthcare support with equity to all in the country.

A beginning has been made:

It is good to note that key stakeholders in health related areas both in public and private sectors are now exploring the ways in which the Internet, digital devices and other related applications can improve patient care, reduce the cost of care and improve overall population health.

Central and State Governments, policymakers, technologists and health insurance providers are eager to connect underserved consumers to online health services and other e-Health applications. Regrettably, few digital tools have been designed with these consumer populations in mind, to date. The nascent field of e-Health research has thus far poorly characterized the impact of race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status on e-Health adoption and use.

General barriers to e-Health:

The previous policy paper of ‘ZeroDivide’ titled, “e-Health and Underserved Populations,” identified 8 barriers, though in the US perspective, that underserved communities face in accessing and utilizing e-Health tools. These are as follows:

• Lack of health literacy

• Lack of linguistic and cultural competency in e-Health

• Access limitations for people with disabilities

• Privacy concerns and distrust in the health system

• Lack of digital literacy

• Limited or no access to broadband and mobile data

• Limited or no access to technology platforms and interoperability

• Lack of awareness of e-Health

Very surprisingly even today all these 8 barriers are very relevant to India, as well.

A key concern:

‘ZeroDivide’ report also highlighted a key area of concern in e-health initiatives. This is ‘Interpersonal relationships’ between the healthcare consumers and the healthcare providers. Consumers’ perception in the study was that technology interfered with the patient-provider relationship.

In their view, technology can alienate providers from their patients, impeding the relationships that are important to providing quality care.

In India, it appears, this perception is equally valid and needs to be addressed effectively, in the process of implementation of e-healthcare in the country.

e-Health in India:

In August 2014, the Director General Health Services (DGHS), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reportedly announced that his Ministry “has already prepared the white paper of the e-Healthcare service, which will be a boost to raise awareness among the people in the country, who remain completely deprived of the health services initiated by the government,”

He also said, e-Healthcare system basically being a web portal, would help the government connecting with the people on every health-related program and various schemes that would enable them getting free medical treatment.

Accenture – a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, in one of its reports of 2014 titled, “Delivering e-health in India – Analysis and Recommendations” also echoed that a ‘Citizen Portal’ is expected to serve as a single point of access for consolidated health information and services.

It also recommended that keeping population diversity in mind, the web portal should have multi lingual support and be available both on web and mobile (also through an SMS/IVR gateway). People in rural areas would, therefore, be able to access citizen portal more easily through mobile applications as mobile penetration is quite significant in India.

Accenture also acknowledged that a small fraction of population now uses a web portal to interact and share information with providers. With the introduction of state health portals for the citizens, the use of health portals is likely to skyrocket in the coming years. If that happens, its impact on healthcare would indeed be phenomenal.

Moving towards this direction, some experts have also suggested the Government to set up ‘National e-Health Authority of India (NeHAI)’ immediately to formulate the National e-Health Strategy (NeHS) and chart an innovative actionable pathway in this area.

It is interesting to note that according to the Ministry of Health, over 39 million people in India still remain deprived of basic healthcare services, which in most cases lead to death.

Types of e-Health program in India and challenges:

According to a 2014 paper titled, “In e-Health in India today, the nature of work, the challenges and the finances: an interview-based study”, published in ‘BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2014: 14:1’, a range of e-Health programs is currently being run in India, including point-of-care in rural and urban areas, treatment compliance, data collection and disease surveillance, and distant medical education. Most programs provide point-of-care to patients or other beneficiaries in rural areas.

The article states that technology is not a limiting factor, but the unavailability of suitable health personnel is a major challenge, especially in rural areas. Financial sustainability is also a concern for most programs, which have rarely been scaled up. Government facilities have not been very effective in e-Health on their own, just yet, but collaborations between the government and non-profit (in particular) and for-profit organizations have led to impactful programs.

Though increasing number of various e-Health service providers is coming up in India, lack of general awareness and also acceptance of e-Health among potential healthcare consumers continue to remain a critical challenge.

I deliberated on different issues with e-Health in my blog post of May 9, 2011 titled, “e-healthcare: A new vista to improve access to quality and affordable healthcare in India”

Conclusion:

India is a nation with vast unmet medical needs. At least now, every citizen of the country should be provided with the facilities to meet most of those unmet medical needs.

e-Health through “Digital Health Equity”, has the potential to improve the quality of healthcare in India and ensure its adequate access, especially, to the underserved population of the country.

It is imperative, therefore, to scale up design and development of innovative and cost-effective e-health related digital tools to ensure equity in healthcare and, at the same time, augment quality healthcare services for all in India.

This endeavor would entail much stronger efforts towards health literacy programs and translating existing digital tools into multi-lingual versions to reach the underserved health consumer, especially in rural India.

As e-Health continues to evolve in India in an organized manner, many critical challenges currently faced in the health systems of the nation, would potentially be mitigated through wide deployment of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Some of these key challenges are:

  • Shortages of health workers, especially in rural India
  • Variable quality of cares; between urban and rural, as well as, public and private healthcare providers
  • Uncertainty in patient compliance
  • Fraud in healthcare delivery system

Propelled by the Government initiative all stakeholders; such as technology designers/engineers, healthcare providers, policymakers, payers and especially the consumers; should work in unison to achieve the long cherished health outcomes in India: “Health For All”.

In the next five years, would the ‘Digital India’ spearheaded by the “Smart Cities” be able to ensure “Digital Health Equity” to augment healthcare services for all in India?

By: Tapan J. Ray

DisclaimerThe 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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