Every healthcare innovation in India till now has largely been an urban phenomenon. The real challenge and absence of healthcare is in non-urban areas. What covid has done is to make geography redundant in many instances
We have got used to plug-and-play digital platforms in shopping, transport and accommodation. It is now the turn of healthcare to restructure its value chain, as hospitals unbundle services like diagnostics which can be provided remotely by external specialists.
The long-term impact of this digitization is an improved access to top-tier healthcare. “Every healthcare innovation in India till now has largely been an urban phenomenon. The real challenge and absence of healthcare is in non-urban areas. What covid has done is to make geography redundant in many instances," says Ganapathy Venugopal, co-founder and CEO of Axilor Ventures, which has been an early backer of digital health platforms.
One of these is 5CN which provides access to an online network of hundreds of radiologists. Platforms such as this also help consumers break free from the lack of transparency in the healthcare ecosystem, which mostly operates with references rather than the best option for patients. Another Axilor-backed startup, Medfin, provides access to elective surgeries from a range of ambulatory and day care surgery providers.
Medical advances have made surgeries for conditions like hernia, prostate, piles, fibroids and kidney stones possible with day care instead of longer and more expensive hospital admission. This enables a platform play with benefits for all those who plug into it. “The Medfin model increases OT (operation theatre) utilization, triples the earning potential of surgeons, and halves the expenses of patients," points out Venugopal.
innovation in store
Radha K., partner at Unitus Ventures, feels the covid-induced behavioural shift towards trusting tele-based services will continue. This increases the scope for application of new technologies, especially AI (artificial intelligence).
“A lot more data is being generated when consultations happen online because in-person consultation involves a separate, manual data entry. This is going to drive more innovation around data-driven and AI-based diagnostics and treatment," says Radha.
AI comes into play in two forms. It can be applied to structured data as in the imaging of CT scans or thermal images for breast cancer screening as well as genetic data and electronic health records. Then there is the increased scope for using natural language processing (NLP) to turn voice recordings or clinical notes into structured data which can be fed into AI engines. The more that machines get involved in diagnostics and treatment, lower will be their cost.
“Improvements in AI and machine learning, coupled with increasing data interoperability, reduce coordination costs. These two shifts are driving the rise of platforms in healthcare," writes Sangeet Paul Choudary, author of Platform Revolution.
Big Tech’s increased advance into healthcare in the year of the pandemic is creating the infrastructure for efficient digital platforms on a larger scale. Google, for example, provides cloud-based services customized for the needs of healthcare providers to share files such as CT scans. It also launched a healthcare API (application programming interface) last year that facilitates interoperability between multiple applications on the cloud and connectivity with traditional healthcare providers on the ground.
Digital assistants trained on medical terms can help doctors collect and manage patient data. There are also new hardware plays, such as Amazon’s Halo fitness band that creates new possibilities by taking 3D scans of the body and capturing the emotion in the wearer’s voice.
Big tech disruption
Does the entry of Big Tech shut out startups in this space? On the contrary, it can help startups build innovations for specific use cases on top of the infrastructure being created by the likes of Google, feels Zainul Charbiwala, co-founder and CTO of Tricog, whose AI-based systems help cardiologists analyse ECG data on the cloud.
Big Tech’s involvement also raises awareness and acceptance of digital services. “We started deploying portable ECG devices four years before an electrocardiogram appeared on the Apple Watch. But now, people understand you can do ECG on the wrist. So it helps us from that perspective to explain how we can do ECG analysis with data from such devices," notes Charbiwala.
The sheer diversity of use cases in healthcare across different markets and segments means huge scope for healthtech startups as healthcare gets restructured into modular units that can be combined and recombined in different ways on digital platforms.
Instead of the vertical integration of large hospitals, with everything under one roof, what we’re seeing is an unbundling of specialized entities, creating new business models. New tech infrastructure and innovations are facilitating that shift.
Sumit Chakraberty is a consulting editor with Mint. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org