Healthcare as a sector in India is growing, as is the country’s reputation for medical tourism and affordable drugs. According to a report by Technopak Advisors, healthcare, a $35 billion industry in India, is expected to cross $75 billion by 2012 and $150 billion by 2017.
This growth has created pockets of opportunities for investors in areas such as the medical devices and supplies market, and the health services outsourcing sector. In addition, the government, along with the private sector, is planning to invest up to $2 billion in an effort to make India one of the top five global pharmaceutical innovation hubs by 2020.
However, India is yet to measure up to international standards of domestic healthcare. A majority of citizens still struggle for access to primary healthcare, and diseases such as malaria and cholera continue to kill. Other challenges include inadequate affordable healthcare infrastructure, especially in rural areas. Also, in times of calamities, the protracted response time of emergency services drives up the number of fatalities.
The Union Budget for 2010-11 saw healthcare allocation increase by around Rs2,700 crore from the previous fiscal, with specific focus on rural healthcare. Tax incentives and increased outlay aside, the focused channelling of these funds is what will determine the future of healthcare in our country.
But to truly transform healthcare, we need to leverage technology as an enabler and revisit our national healthcare policies.
As only 25% of India’s specialist physicians live in semi-urban areas and a mere 3% in rural areas, the healthcare services divide continues to widen. Addressing this issue is telemedicine—remote diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of patients through videoconferencing or the Internet. With a revamped information and communication technology infrastructure, and deeper broadband penetration, telemedicine could well become one of the top three initiatives to enable the National Rural Health Mission.
Even in major cities, one of the most common issues is how to connect healthcare professionals and emergency medical service authorities. The connected doctor would have instant access to electronic patient information from multiple sources. Timely access to key information means that clinicians can treat their patients better.
Going further, a national health grid that connects medical institutions and practitioners throughout the country would allow specialists to share case studies and experiences, and discuss disease patterns and treatment options.
There is potential for more patients across India to access healthcare through technology-backed concepts such as call centres, websites, public kiosks, and interactive mobile and digital devices. It is essential to track how funds are being used and how efficiently healthcare projects are executed. Better policy regulation and public-private partnerships can improve healthcare and emergency response systems.
The government needs to review the compensation packages of healthcare professionals in rural areas, with incentives to practise in these places. To develop a community-owned and decentralized health delivery system in remote areas, we also need to train and expand the existing pool of social health workers.
Another need is to create awareness about health insurance schemes such as the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, which provides health cover for families of workers in the unorganized sector below the poverty line.
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.” As India stands on the cusp of becoming one of the growth engines of the world, ensuring that every Indian enjoys this right is imperative.
Naresh Wadhwa is president and country manager, India and Saarc, Cisco. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org