India needs 300 times more telemedicine centres to reach out to three-fourths of the country’s population, underserved by healthcare in rural and semi-urban areas.
Telemedicine centres using satellite connectivity and computers to monitor and dispense prescriptions in remote areas, have grown five-fold to 500 inthe last six years in India, but fall short of the 1.5 lakh such centres that are needed, said the technology conference participants.
“There is a need for a successful business model and mass insurance schemes to get the requisite telemedicine centres in the country,” said Dr Krishnan Ganapathy, head of the Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation at Nasscom 2007. The foundation, part of Apollo Healthcare, runs around 100 telemedicine centres.
It costs between Rs4 lakh and Rs5 lakh to set up a centre that is equipped with a V-SAT (short for a very small aperture terminal, a satellite-based data connectivity technology) and diagnostic equipment, which is loaded on vans. Given the high investments and lack of mass health insurance among patients in remote areas, telemedicine efforts have not taken off.
“Consultancy fee at these centres is as low as Rs10. Seeing the huge investment, there is a need for government and corporate support to make it a sustainaible business model,” said Dr Ganapathy.
Subsidy in the form of lower-priced V-SAT connections run by the government would help reduce costs, medical administrators recommend. They say more than 80% patients visiting hospitals inIndia can be treated through telemedicine.
Even in ophthalmology, Madurai-based Arvind Eye Hospitals has telemedicine vans travelling to villages. “Through a simple video conference link, we can speak to the patient and advise the attendant what to do,” said Dr. R. Kim, chief of the vitreo retinal service of Arvind.
A shortage of doctors willing to serve in India’s villages, numbering over six lakh, doesn’t help. The country has roughly 6.5 lakh qualified doctors, four-fifths of who live in cities and towns. “That leaves just 20% of the total medical community to take care of 76% of country’s population,” Dr Ganapathy told Mint.