The Covid-19 pandemic is a strong reminder of two things - more needs to be done to protect our communities from future health crises and strengthening our healthcare infrastructure is critical for this. It has also made clear that the future of healthcare is digital.
The past year has laid to rest doubts about the importance of technology. Technology emerged as the lifeline of societies and economies. Across the world, robots continue to disinfect cities, cook hospital food and deliver packages. Smart devices continue to monitor patient health, and human-AI (Artificial Intelligence) collaboration is becoming a critical tool for those studying the virus. In fact, AI and Cloud are set to transform healthcare delivery from reactive care to predictive care, driving proactive disease management and the move towards preventive care.
In India, digital technologies have played a key role in pandemic response. Digital platforms like MyGov Saathi, Aaroyga Setu and CoWIN are supporting information dissemination, contact tracing and vaccination efforts. Communities have used social platforms to support each other, and healthcare providers have scaled up virtual services to keep pace with the demand for diagnosis and care.
Digital technologies can help resolve two major delivery challenges in India. First, they can reduce the burden on healthcare practitioners so that limited number of doctors, nurses and professionals can achieve more and spend their time providing quality care - like doctors working at hospitals in China who use AI to read CT scans of lungs. Second, digital technologies such as smartphones, or solutions like remote patient management platforms that use smart devices, Internet of Things, analytics and AI can augment health infrastructure to fill the last-mile gap, improving affordable healthcare access in rural areas where over 65 per cent of India's population resides.
Just like banking correspondents or "bank saathi" for last-mile outreach of banking services to rural citizens, digitally fluent and technology-enabled healthcare support assistants can support primary health centres across India. Consider a "health saathi" equipped with a smartphone who is trained to capture patient health details into a database on the Cloud, which can be accessed by a doctor remotely.
The starting point for digital healthcare services is a central health data repository for all individuals. Electronic Health Records (EHRs) are the foundation of effective digital health as they enable clinical and back office decision making, and provide insights that guide policy formulation. EHRs also serve as the structural foundation of data that is needed to apply technologies such as AI for population health management, which could potentially improve clinical outcomes by 30-40 per cent, while reducing treatment costs by 50 per cent over the long term. The Government of India's Health-Cloud under the National Health Mission is a step towards building this foundation and one that needs urgent and speedy execution.
The biggest beneficiaries and influencers in the shift to digital healthcare will be citizens themselves. Covid has sparked long-term changes in consumer behaviour, and a surge in virtual consumption is one of them. Over the last year global volumes for virtual telehealth services increased 15-20x, and our estimates show that in future, 1 in 3 healthcare consultations will be conducted virtually. For now, this reflects the trend in urban centres in India, but with increasing digital penetration and right investments in building digital fluency, virtual care could be a real solution for rural India in future.
India is committed to the 2030 sustainable development goal of providing universal healthcare. The right digital investments will be key to achieving this and could pave the way for the Right to Healthcare for all Indians.
(The writer is Chairperson and Senior MD, Accenture in India. She is also the Chairperson of NASSCOM for 2021-22)
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