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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Online path to healthcare

Digital solutions can remove longstanding problems of Indian medical systems such as accessibility, even affordability.But basic systems must be in place.

Updated: August 23, 2020 9:53:24 pm
Cases of possible Covid reinfection in 2 children with cancer at Medanta hospital in GurgaonThe hospital has reached out to the National Institute of Virology for sequencing of viral strain.(Representational Image)

Written by K Madan Gopal and Suryaprabha Sadasivan

The Indian healthcare system has evolved much over the last decade, owing to the adoption of new technologies as well as systemic changes and emphasis on service quality. However, healthcare standards areneither uniform nor inclusive across the country.

At one end of the spectrum, are state-of-the-art private facilities with advanced testing and treatment technologies catering primarily to people in urban areas, and on the other, there is a void where the impoverished struggle to receive even the most basic care.

The COVID-19 crisis has made the cracks in the system appear more prominent. New challenges are emerging every day – it, therefore, becomes crucial to revisit the problems and chart out a plan to fix them. Low health awareness can be attributed to poor education or functional literacy, as well as inadequate emphasis at different levels. However, regional efforts to enhance awareness have generally shown promising results.

For instance, behavioural change interventions in Bihar and Jharkhand resulted in improved awareness about abortion. The power of education cannot be undermined, and efforts should be made, both on a personal and CSRlevel, to sensitise people on health issues and promote healthy/safe behaviour. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mass awareness drives about social distancing and masks could have saved thousands of lives.

Accessibility to quality healthcare among the rural population is another major challenge. For some, travelling to a distant hospital for treatment means losing out on daily wages, and is put off until serious complications arise. A lack of accessibility to healthcare negatively affects health-seeking behaviour and has a delayed but more severe impact on the country’s healthcare burden. It is important to identify and analyse barriers to access — geographical, financial, social and systemic — and sensitise people so that long-term action is taken to remove them.Not only do doctors, nurses, medical and technical staff need to be trained, skilled and equipped, but their services have to be equitably distributed across regions. Remote and rural areas are especially plagued with staff shortages.

This affects service quality and availability specialized treatments. A clear, enforceable policy on human resources is needed to ensure that every single patient in India is taken care of by sensitive, trained and competent healthcare worker. Public hospitals that provide low or no-cost services are perceived as unreliable or of indifferent quality. The private sector is usually the first choice for anyone who can afford it.

The healthcare sector needs to be cost conscious — expenditure on unnecessary tests and procedures must be eliminated.Clear demarcation of processes and procedures are essential to ensure accountability. The problem can be solved by cultivating communicative and responsible culture, clarifying expectations and identifying the many other sectors, digital innovation can play a huge role in overcoming challenges in the healthcare sector.

On-demand health services, for instance, allow organisations to link doctors to patients via the in-person, web (website or app) or phone mediums. Patients can search for specialists based on their expertise and schedule to book appointments. Online patient portals also provide medical test results, diagnosis and give patients detailed explanations of their illnesses, saving doctors precious time.Devices like health rate monitors, exercise and activity trackers and sweat meters allow people to keep track of some aspects of their health without having to visit a doctor. The use of such devices can help flag irregularities at an early stage.

Moreover, the results provide doctors with detailed histories when needed. The use of oximeters skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing diagnosed patients to monitor their oxygen levels at home, without risking interaction unless necessary.

Other applications of technology in healthcare range from drone delivery of life-saving medicines, blood components or devices to inaccessible areas to remotely conducted robotic surgeries and even use of-augmented reality (AR) glasses that could allow first responders to connect with faraway specialists in a matter of seconds.

Depending on the pace of digital adoption, these services could resolve issues of accessibility, absence, and possibly even affordability, in the long-term. However, it cannot be overstated that solving basic healthcare challenges is crucial for ensuring universal health coverage in a manner that is equitable, fair and transparent.

Madan Gopal is Senior Consultant (Health), NITI Aayog and Sadasivan isVice-President & Healthcare Policy Lead, Chase India. Views expressed are personal.

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