In a country like India innovation in the healthcare industry can be complex but rewarding, due to various reasons like geographical, demographic and landscape factors. Innovation can also occur in the space of technology and one such platform that has emerged as a shining example is Telemedicine. This technological medical service sector is expected to create a market worth $5.4Bn in India by 2025. According to the reports, in 2019 India was facing a shortage of about 600 thousand doctors and two mn nurses. As per the recommendation of WHO, the ratio of doctor to patients should be 1:1000 but in India it is 1:1445. In this context, telemedicine permits doctors to connect with patients through communication technologies; serving not only urban areas but rural areas as well. In fact, the lack of standard healthcare services in rural areas can be addressed with the help of telemedicine. In case of disasters and pandemic, telemedicine comes to the rescue of patients by providing access to well-equipped healthcare experts.
To understand more about telemedicine, it’s success in the current scenario, future prospects, barriers in rural areas we spoke to some prominent telemedicine service providers from the industry to get their perspective on the same. Here is what they think of the future of telemedicine in India.
Samrat Singh, CEO and Co-founder of MedPrime Technologies, a telemedicine provider, said, “Telemedicine is the only option that will enable healthcare services to reach the grass root level; in a country like India that has a population of over 130 crores. Naturally, with the advancement of technology, digitisation of medical equipment and better internet connectivity and accessibility, we can expect an upward curve in telemedicine.”
Among the urban population, telemedicine has managed to catch attention but speaking of rural population, it still hasn’t become quite popular yet. This maybe due to lack of infrastructure, awareness, and availability of resources. Ayush Mishra, Founder and CEO, Tattvan Eclinic, telemedicine providers, says, “Telemedicine would continue to grow in urban India, as 70 per cent of OPD cases can be treated by virtual medicine.”
Is Telemedicine Serving Rural India
Telemedicine has been well adopted in urban India but in the rural areas scaling up has been difficult. Kunal P Kinalekar, CTO, Betoapp, a smart diabetes care and management app, highlighted this and said, “The rural areas may not be as scaled up as the urban area in the field of telemedicine but the awareness is there. E-medicine has opened up platforms for doctors to treat patients from far away. The cost subsidiary on these platforms have made it easier even for rural people to contact the high end doctors.”
The lack of infrastructure and understanding among the rural population of how telemedicine works also makes it difficult for adoption. Mishra shared his view on this. “As far as rural India goes, the lack of infrastructure makes it difficult for the access of telemedicine in these regions. In India, about 450-500 companies are offering telemedicine services; of which 80 per cent of the companies are creating products that aid in telemedicine and outsourcing the same in countries like the US and UK. The other 10-15 per cent of the companies are creating online platforms for telemedicine like Practo. The remaining five per cent are companies have physical centres that run telemedicine; helping the patients understand and experience how telemedicine works,” he explained
In rural areas, there are many barriers to the adoption of telemedicine like language, infrastructure and education, which, hinder in the use of telemedicine. According to Kinalekar, the main barrier is the lack of communication technologies to use telemedicine platforms at the fullest. He also pointed out the lack of smartphones among people making it difficult to access telemedicine.
As per Mishra, in rural areas the biggest barrier apart from language while using telemedicine apps is educating them. He further goes on to say, “The lack of education among people why to use telemedicine is the biggest issue. Their company solves this problem by creating an experience for patients wherein when a patient walks in they have a receptionist followed by a patient counsellor and then a paramedic checking on their vitals. This whole process gives patients in rural areas an experience similar to a clinic. Hence taking them in confidence and giving them an assurance that best treatment would be offered to them. “Every technology has an incubation period for widespread adoption. As is the case with most newly developed technologies, popularity among urban populations comes first, and then is followed by rural populations based on need, investment, affordability and accessibility. My personal view is that the need for such services is extremely high in rural population and if executed in the right way, there can be fast penetration in rural areas as well,” Singh said.
Telemedicine and COVID-19
With the current, unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, traditional healthcare system has taken a step back and telemedicine has taken the center stage. The pandemic has led to a transformative change in healthcare delivery by mainstreaming telemedicine. Singh, shed some light on this. “The current lockdown scenario may prove to be a boost to adoption of telemedicine. Due to social distancing, patients have had to resort to online consultations with doctors, thus bringing about a behaviour change,” he said.
In the current scenario, healthcare going digital has became the need of the hour. Telemedicine can bridge the gaps between the doctors and patients, they also help in providing primary care like follow ups, getting a second opinion and, most importantly screening patients to see if they need an in-person consultation. The uncertainty of rules and legislation is been a contributing factor in the growth of telemedicine in India. Earlier, the lack of guidelines also imposes risk on doctors and patients but with the guidelines being effective now they provide a more comprehensive framework for the mode of communication, consultation fees, document requirements, patient confidentiality and more. This makes it even more reliable for healthcare workers and patients to use the services of telemedicine.
Telemedicine Post Lockdown
Experts believe, post lockdown telemedicine would continue to grow. Kinalekar, commented saying,“Telemedicine is here to stay post lockdown although the curve might not be, as steep as, it was during the lockdown. Patients who needed physical examination prefer to go in-person and get themselves checked as in the cases of orthopaedics, dermatology and neuropathy. In these cases, virtual examination becomes difficult due to connectivity issues or the camera quality not being clear.”
It is clear that telemedicine is the future of the healthcare industry. It is only a matter of time till people start adapting this behaviour change. This change is beneficial to both the patients as well as doctors. Hence it is fair to say that the application of telemedicine and related technologies will improve the way healthcare services are delivered and help in achieving an integrated and seamless healthcare experience.