Indian healthcare has made substantial progress in the last decade – be it in terms of improving the standard of public health or investments in better infrastructure. However, despite these efforts by the government and private players including startups, the Indian healthcare ecosystem continues to face certain challenges. Some of these include a rising elderly population, shift in the burden of diseases, lack of access to proper healthcare in rural areas, shortage of manpower, and emergence of newer diseases like the recent COVID-19 pandemic, among others.
Digital technology such as telemedicine can become the game-changer in this scenario and alter the Indian healthcare landscape for the better. Telemedicine can not only plug gaps but also improve access and quality of healthcare – leading to a reduction in costs. The Ministry of Health, Government of India established the National Telemedicine Taskforce in 2005. Subsequently, the country saw the emergence of ICMR-AROGYASREE, NeHA, and VRCs. Recently, a report by ASSOCHAM projected that the telemedicine market in India would be valued at about INR 200 crore by the end of 2020.
In addition to making the delivery of healthcare safer for all stakeholders, telemedicine is also a great force multiplier. The widespread and easy coverage makes available a larger number of healthcare providers for the public. This empowers them to allocate more time and resources to effectively treat patients. It enables a doctor to remotely monitor and treat patients located even thousands of miles away.
In recent months, the novel-Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been declared as a global pandemic. This infection has become a major cause of worry for the healthcare apparatus in India due to the unique challenges that the country faces. Our healthcare system was already strained with a heavy disease burden when the COVID-19 outbreak happened. The new pandemic has not only endangered the general public but also appeared as a major health hazard for our healthcare providers. India already has a severe shortage of doctors and trained healthcare professionals. Hence, the emergence of a viral disease that preys on the patients and caregivers alike is the most undesirable scenario for the country. The highly contagious and potentially fatal nature of the virus has caused mass panic in the country and the government has extended the nationwide lockdown until May 3, 2020.
In such a scenario, people are unwilling to take any risks or to visit hospitals and general physicians’ clinics. There is a fear that one might get infected if he/she visits high-risk places such as crowded areas. The government and health bodies have issued advisories requesting people to avoid visiting hospitals in non-emergency situation. Hence, people suffering from chronic diseases or long-term illnesses as well as minor ailments are now opting for telemedicine services. This is not only a safe method of treatment, but, also economical and less time consuming. There is no doubt that telemedicine will continue expanding its footprint in the Indian healthcare industry even after the pandemic is brought under control.
The advancement of technology has led to the emergence of innovative solutions including medical devices that can measure a person’s heartbeat, respiratory functions, body temperature, ECG and various other vitals digitally. Further, portable gadgets can be made available within the home environment to monitor elderly and chronic delivery patients. These gadgets can measure the patient’s vitals and share the results with doctors immediately through the digital route. This, in turn, makes specialist healthcare accessible to patients even in remote areas where physical institutions might not exist.
Even the cost of providing healthcare assistance is drastically reduced by telemedicine services. There is no need to invest heavily in infrastructure as the doctors can cater to patients located over vast geographical areas from their existing premises itself. This can also reduce the fatigue faced by healthcare staff as they can spend more time with their families while being digitally available to support patients anytime. Even the patients, especially those who generally need to travel long distances to meet a doctor or the elderly who face mobility challenges, find it much easier to consult a doctor via video conferencing, chat or emails.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare with NITI Aayog recently released the official guidelines for telemedicine practices in the country. These will allow registered medical practitioners to provide remote consultation in supersession of the Medical Council of India (MCI). The guidelines will also provide a proper framework to deliver healthcare services remotely through phone or online, especially in cases where distance is a critical factor like the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, doctors practicing telemedicine need to complete a mandatory online course currently being developed and made available by the Board of Governors. The development of newer tools and integrating technologies like Augmented and Virtual reality, AI, 3-D printing, connected devices, and intelligent machines will further transform the scale and ease of delivery for telemedicine in the years ahead.
The ultimate test of technology is in integrating it comfortably into the daily life of individually must be made a part of the public and private healthcare ecosystem for better outcomes. While telemedicine may not be a magic bullet revolutionizing healthcare on its own, it can become a facilitator in improving the existing scenario and the care continuum.
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