All experiences teach us to get better! Adversities make us more resilient, and give us the opportunity to focus on processes, strategies, and technologies that make us handle the situation better. The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different.
It is not as if the digitization of healthcare and innovations were not taking place before the pandemic. However, the contagion forced global decision makers, healthcare providers, and the general public to take digital healthcare more seriously. Today, it is rapidly moving towards becoming the first choice for care instead of an option that only a small percentage of people chose.
In India, despite being one of the largest healthcare systems, the pandemic glaringly exposed the limitations and inadequacies of conventional medical ecosystem. At the same time, it highlighted how digital healthcare is capable of improving quality, access, and affordability of healthcare. At home-healthcare delivery and telemedicine services reached everyone including people affected with chronic diseases, elderly, pregnant women and small children, and the general healthy population.
Today, as we strategize the future of healthcare in India, there is absolutely no doubt that digital healthcare is capable of being the catalyst for greater health equity or universal healthcare.
Digitization for Health Equity in India
Healthcare disparities in India are primarily driven by three key factors: lack of awareness, access, and affordability. Digitization is the key to resolve all three. Digital healthcare services especially telemedicine, and home healthcare/doorstep diagnostics platforms have been instrumental in expanding the coverage of quality healthcare especially across the marginalized and underserved populations across small towns and rural India.
Most of the existing healthcare infrastructure and qualified doctors are concentrated in metro cities or Tier1/Tier 2 towns. However, majority of the population continues to live in Tier 3/Tier 4 cities, small towns and rural areas, and they have to visit a medical facility in the bigger cities for every medical need. Considering the time, cost and effort required to do so, minor illnesses and symptoms of diseases are usually ignored until the time there is a debilitating medical condition or discomfort.
Through digital dissemination of information, and telemedicine, e-pharmacies, remote monitoring, as well as digital healthcare devices, as well as point of care support, all these populations were brought into care coverage for the pandemic. From the remote areas of Lahaul and Spiti, Kashmir, and Arunachal Pradesh to the densely populated yet poorly covered sections in the mainland India, the fight against pandemic reached to all parts.
Constant awareness through digital means along with on-ground support has enabled Indian healthcare providers to contain the pandemic fallout to the best possible levels.
This ability now needs to be harnessed without losing any focus or steam, to cover not only the pandemic care, but also the entire spectrum of healthcare services across the country. Digital healthcare helps the providers overcome geographical barriers or lack of institutional infrastructure. The growth of digital communication and literacy is the foundation on which we have to build the future of healthcare. In India, only 21% people were online in 2017, and the number rose to 61% in 2021, which is close to the global average. However, we still need to develop coverage and infrastructure that helps bring the remaining 39% into the network. This digitally engaged audience is going to be the beneficiary of the digitized healthcare.
Further, digital healthcare access enables advanced, standardized, and same cost coverage to all, irrespective of their location, community, gender or other considerations. Even in communities where women are not allowed to venture out, telemedicine can connect them to the best medical experts from within their homes. Digital healthcare awareness through dedicated online platforms and social media can help everyone recognize and report disease symptoms, and monitor vitals such as blood pressure, heart rate oxygen percentage, fever etc. Easy-to-use AI and internet enabled digital devices are now available in India, and by promoting their adoption, we can also ease the burden on physical diagnostic infrastructure. Also, such standardisation and universal access to digital healthcare is a lot more affordable than even visiting a doctor in the same city, because there is no travel time and expense needed.
A key aspect of digital healthcare that we have seen recently, is the rise of collaborative and integrated healthcare platforms. These digital first service providers focus on end-to-end support and delivery of high-quality care at costs that are usually lower than the in-hospital expenses.
The need of the hour
The government has taken several policy initiatives, and we have also seen how portal-based vaccination has been a great success. Through the support of COWIN website and app, over 1.75 billion doses have been administered across the country and people are able to digitally download the vaccination certificates on their smartphones.
Now it is time to focus on building a holistic and integrated technology-driven healthcare ecosystem as envisaged by National Digital Health Mission and other initiatives. Creating tailor-made digital healthcare services, doorstep delivery of care and diagnostics as well as a switch to preventive care instead of responsive care, will lead to much greater and positive outcomes for the masses.
Digitization coupled with focus on making services affordable by bringing them under the insurance ambit to relieve the financial burden on the masses is the need of the hour. There is a need for the government to make appropriate investments to support innovation and growth of tech-based healthcare ecosystem.
We stand at the cusp of a healthcare revolution, triggered by an unfortunate pandemic outbreak, but enabled by the emergence of digital technology. Let’s make the most of it, and ensure long-term and equitable healthcare for all!
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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