Home / Opinion / Columns /  Digital in healthcare: An idea whose time has come to bridge the gaps

In a typical situation, an individual’s health journey is broadly a series of event-based experiences and interactions: symptoms, ignoring symptoms, trying home remedies, delayed diagnosis, hospital-based treatment, sporadic post-treatment care, follow-up visits only when symptoms recur or condition becomes worse.

The covid-19 pandemic forced us to rethink existing healthcare delivery models and embrace digital transformation. A large majority of patients (60%) and doctors (65%) now prefer digital platforms over in-person consultations.

But is it yet another passing trend or is digital healthcare an idea whose time has come?

First, consumer behaviour has irreversibly shifted. For instance, consumers once at ease only with Amazon and Flipkart for their online shopping needs are increasingly comfortable consuming healthcare on their mobile phones.

India witnesses 200,000-300,000 telemedicine consultations every day currently, with calls coming from not just urban hubs like Delhi or Mumbai, but millions from over 2,000 towns spread across the country’s vast rural heartlands. And 80% of these are first time users.

This dynamism is feeding off rapidly-growing awareness among consumers about recent advances in e-health as a crucial multiplier for a better life. Its implications for our broader healthcare challenges are obvious.

India’s non-communicable diseases (NCD) are threatening to assume tsunamic proportions, and is one instance where advanced e-health interventions are delivering better patient care.

Second, let’s consider India’s healthcare system against those in the US or Europe. The average healthcare spend per capita in India is $75, compared with $12,000 in the US. India has 600,000 doctors, (one government doctor for every 10,189 people, much lower than WHO’s recommended ratio of 1:1000), or a deficit of 600,000 doctors. We already need twice the number of doctors and three times the number of nurses than we have today.

Indeed, technology is the only answer to ensure better health outcomes in India at a reasonable cost. It can break down barriers to building expensive infrastructure and help level the playing field with better resourced health systems in the developed world.

Third, healthcare is a national priority today more than ever. During his Independence Day speech on 15 August, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the aspirational and transformational National Digital Health Mission, now reschristened Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM). It aims to create an “open digital health ecosystem (ODE)", a shared digital infrastructure that can be leveraged by both public and private enterprises to build and provide new, innovative, healthcare solutions.

The Mission is already one of the largest health databases in the world with over 243 million health accounts and IDs generated on its National Health Stack so far and will ultimately, result in a complete redesign of the flow of people, money, information and approach to create a new and comprehensive foundational health paradigm.

What do these three big transformative drivers of digital healthcare in India imply?

It means that digital engagement is not optional. Players without a credible offering will lose patients, customers, and partners. Care must follow an increasingly mobile patient, out of the hospital and into a variety of settings closer to the home and community, which will become the next frontier of care. Not surprisingly, the numbers agree. India’s home healthcare market is expected to touch $30 billion by 2030, up from the $7.4 billion estimated in 2021.

Then there is the question of talent, or the war for talent. Players can win this battle in a constrained world by eliminating or automating low-value tasks and embracing the future of work where AI is being used to detect the extent of lung damage from the Delta variant of Sars-Cov2, or other tools used by NCDC to create a database of outbreaks of 33 diseases, some with potential to become epidemics.

Finally, and crucially, with digital health and access to better information and choice, the ability to harmonize everything for integrated experiences and quality health outcomes will spur competitive advantage.

For healthcare businesses, the path ahead is clear: put in real dollars and leadership energy towards tech and big data capabilities to remain relevant in India’s quest for health equity.

Priyanka Aggarwal is Managing Director and Partner at BCG India and co-leads the firm’s Healthcare Practice in India.

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