Prof S N Sarbadhikari

AI has the potential to alter how healthcare is delivered. It can sustain and support advancements in patient experience, and access to healthcare services. It can boost productivity and efficiency of care delivery and allow healthcare systems to nourish better care to people, shared Prof. S N Sarbadhikari, Professor and Head, Department of Digital Health Research, Santiniketan Medical College with Kaanchi Chawla of Elets News Network (ENN). Edited excerpts:

Which are the healthcare segments that are witnessing augmented use of AI in delivering efficient healthcare?

The leading areas of AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence/ Machine Learning) applications in healthcare include diagnosis and treatment recommendations, patient engagement and adherence, and also administrative activities. There are many instances where AI applications can perform better healthcare tasks than humans. However, implementation factors will prevent large-scale automation of healthcare professional jobs soon.

Apart from medical diagnostics, AI is being actively used for drug (and vaccine) discovery. Clinical trials can be better managed through automated systems that can track progress, data gathering, and drug trial outcomes. For pain management and palliative care, by leveraging virtual reality (VR) / augmented reality (AR) combined with AI, one can create simulated realities that can distract patients from the current source of their pain. Patients’ health outcomes can be improved through a wide variety of strategies and outcomes driven by AI.

AI has the potential to transform how healthcare is delivered. It can support improvements in care outcomes, patient experience, and access to healthcare services. It can increase productivity and the efficiency of care delivery and allow healthcare systems to provide better care to people. AI can help improve the experience of healthcare practitioners, enabling them to spend more time in direct patient care and reducing burnout.

Ethical issues in the application of AI to healthcare are also important and the fresh or revised Data Protection Bill may ensure the safe and ethical use of such applications. Many AI based systems are already improving the accuracy and efficiency of diagnosis and treatment across various specialisations. This raises the question of whether AI-based systems will eventually replace physicians in some specialisations or will augment the role of physicians without replacing them.

AI-based systems will augment physicians and are unlikely to replace the traditional physician-patient relationship. Further, these may replace doctors who are not using such systems. It is pertinent to note that Computer (AI) plus Brain (Clinical acumen) together is definitely greater than either of these alone.

What according to you could be the growing potential of AI-based tools for healthcare delivery?

The growth potential is enormous. I discussed a case study in our Santiniketan Medical College. We have deployed a health kiosk – hPod from India Health Link (IHL):

We are currently trying to integrate it, in a Standards-compliant manner, with our home-grown telemedicine platform eDocSMC:

Healthcare in India is going through a development phase adopting consumer-centric and digital-first solutions. The shift is to get away from traditional providers like hospitals/ governments/ employers and insurance coverage is driving the decisions for patients.

IHL’s hPod is a stand-alone health kiosk providing non-invasive (automated) screening of more than 20 essential vital parameters including Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, 6 Lead ECG, Temperature, Respiratory rate, Oxygen Saturation, Height, Weight, BMI, Body mass composition under five minutes. It is all done with zero assistance and in the local language. After these automated measurements, all users get personalised health tips, lifestyle/ diet-related counseling, and periodic risk-based doctor consultations right from the hPod and via the mobile app. Hopefully, the collaboration between SMC and IHL will expand Digital Health to every corner of India.

The focus of our collaboration is to:

  • Bring a culture change in people’s health perception to go from reactive to preventive.
  • Build a digital backbone for providing health coverage to the entire India without exception.
  • Create a standard of interoperability and compliance with the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) without requiring heavy infrastructure investment.
  • Bring a paradigm shift in the clinical research ecosystem for Indians
  • And above all, reduce the burden of NCDs in India.

And this collaboration will lead to more data-driven (AI/ML) clinical solutions based on the collected and integrated data from both the kiosk and the telemedicine platform.

The growing digital footprint and technology trends have enhanced healthcare systems, but there still lies the need for a human workforce. Where are the gaps in curating healthcare data?

Absolutely, there are various ways of addressing the needs. We do need a lot of training and retraining (refresher courses) in digital health for all human resources in healthcare. Apart from the formal curricula prescribed by health professional education regulators, we need to design and deliver tailor-made courses for them. Right now we are offering a three-year BSc (Telemedicine and Digital Health) course affiliated with MAKAUT.

On another note, the NCAHP Act 2021 (National Commission on Allied Health Professionals Act 2021) is likely to set forth guidelines. Under this act, there are ten National Councils – of which the tenth one is the National Council for Health Information Management and Health Informatics Professionals. We are likely to see more activities in this sphere very soon.

As technological advancements continue on a rapid basis, healthcare providers move towards more digital care options to enhance their treatment and patient experience. Your thoughts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the adoption and mainstreaming of digital health, mostly through Telehealth. The timely Telemedicine Practice Guidelines (TPG 2020) of India have been a welcome starting point. As patients also find tele-homecare more safe and convenient, adoption is likely to accelerate in the near future. Already people, especially in the bigger cities, are using some wearable devices (Fitbit/ Apple Watch) to track various health parameters. Soon, they will start demanding that their health care provider utilise those data for deciding on the optimal management of their disorders.

Where do you see healthcare 5 years down the line?

I would like to address an interesting issue of how Digital Health/ Health Informatics is influencing Health Professional Education in India.

While the National Medical Commission (NMC) is yet to take cognizance, the Indian Nursing Council (INC) has introduced in 2022 the subject of Health/ Nursing Informatics in the second-semester curriculum of BSc Nursing.

Here, at Santiniketan Medical College, we are applying Metaverse technology (VR Headsets/ Smart Goggles) for regular classes.

There is no doubt that healthcare five years later will utilise technology to a much greater extent than now. Currently, medical knowledge is doubling in 72 days and it is not possible for any human being to keep track of all the recent developments. Therefore, AI-enabled aids have to be used for healthcare delivery, regularly. Now we are entering the Healthcare 4.0 era. We would usher in the Healthcare 5.0 era very soon, and then we cannot leave technology out of healthcare in any way.


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