Indian healthcare industry is at the crossroads and technology is the driver and equally a harbinger of disruptive change. With the launch of Ayushman Bharat, affordability is the new mantra to cater to the healthcare delivery for the 500 million new people. It is well-nigh impossible to cater to the healthcare needs of such a large population without leveraging technology which is changing at a breakneck speed. The industry is being disrupted globally with advancements in technology, new protocols and innovations in AI, Big Data, 3D printing, genomics, blockchain, AR/VR, wearables, telemedicine to name just a few. Much of this technology is yet to be harnessed optimally while the hype rules the roost.
The Government of India has recently imposed price caps on stents, implants and many critical life saving drugs. This has immensely dented the profitability of the providers. The question often being asked is how the providers extend affordable and safe healthcare delivery with all the regulatory pressures. More than 65 percent of India still lives in rural areas. Healthcare delivery especially accessibility is perennial issue in these areas. Could technology help in providing access to the large masses still living in rural and tribal areas? If yes, how and at what cost?
We must find innovative models to provide affordable healthcare to the rural masses. Many firms are already working on such an initiative. Profit cannot be the only motive and the government must adequately incentivise the private healthcare providers to spur investments and extend good quality healthcare to the people staying in rural areas who cannot afford more expensive treatment available in bigger cities. Many state governments are going in for PPP projects to make healthcare more affordable, thus minimising risks to both the parties.
Telemedicine and teleradiology are gaining traction. Upgradation of facilities in tertiary care government hospitals (district hospitals) can take care of major surgeries and high-end tertiary, and later quaternary care. Currently these hospitals are lacking in even the basic infrastructure and clinical talent.
While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is still in a nascent stage in the country, it holds immense potential to minimise costs while improving accuracy of diagnosis and consequently treatment. It’s slowly finding usage in radiology and oncology. In radiology, many firms in India are using it to interpret MRI, CT & USG tests faster and more accurately. In oncology, AI usage has made notable contributions. Manipal Hospital group has installed IBM Watson with limited usage but as the technology evolves and democratizes further, costs are likely to come down further.
AI is also likely to take away some of the repetitive jobs requiring minimal human intervention without prejudice to patient safety or outcomes, especially in the radiology and laboratory departments. All fears on total replacement of manpower through infusion of advanced medical technology seem preposterous and unfounded for the next few years, especially in India, although it will be the future soon.
Telemedicine and teleradiology are already finding usage in rural areas devoid of basic infrastructure, clinical talent and facilities. But one factor that has remained constant in India, vis-à-vis other advanced healthcare markets; it is human touch. Indian healthcare consumer (patient) still loves the touch and feel of a doctor. So, while we introduce newer technologies to our healthcare delivery, we must factor in personalised care and human intervention to cater to their unique needs.
Overall the country is trudging on the right path and we are going to see much more disruption in medical technology, clinical and operational protocols to ensure safe, ethical and affordable healthcare delivery with excellent outcomes and superlative patient delight.
(Writer is Hemraj Parmar, Group Chief Executive Officer, BR Life.)