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ICT is Improving Healthcare Access and Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide

India’s healthcare sector reflects the general financial situation prevalent in the country: there is an enormous gap between the healthcare access for the poor and the wealthy. We have one of the lowest spends on health in proportion to our GDP, which results in more than 60% of the country’s medical expenses being met using personal savings.

As the, comparatively more efficient, private sector is more expensive, a majority of the population that cannot afford private care depends on the understaffed and underfinanced public sector. This disparity is more prevalent in rural areas, where the shortage of doctors has shot up 200% over the last ten years.

Information and Communication Technology is helping and will continue bridging the delivery gap. The Government has placed increased focus on e-health with several mobile applications, such as the Swastha Bharat app for information on diseases, health and treatment tips, and the ANMOL-ANM online tablet app for rural health workers, and the blood bank management system called RaktKosh.

Beneficiaries of the government health schemes can use a smart card to access services in any empanelled hospital, which are IT-enabled and connected to various servers in relevant districts. The Government of Karnataka has partnered with an expert group to launch its cashless health insurance scheme.

Coupled with the incidence of such electronic medical records and the proliferation of wearable technology, the role of data analytics will rise. Hospitals will have access to insurance claims data, patient vitals and rudimentary diagnosis, which will allow doctors to make more informed decisions. This would be particularly useful when patients are being transferred from one hospital to another.

For instance, after an initial screening at the insurance company recommends a specialist, the doctor would have full visibility of their referral network, past medical history and experience of previous doctors based on which he could recommend the proper course of action. Such coordinated care would improve outcomes and reduce costs because unnecessary tests would be cut out.

Block-chain technology will play vital role in security. With its potential for a secure, decentralised database, electronic medical records could be shared across hospitals. Given that it checks periodically for ‘consensus’ along the chain, any hack would be easily detected. This means that a patient could potentially walk into any hospital and consult a doctor who would already have their case history on file.

The raw data could also be taken advantage of by Artificial Intelligence, which can analyse large amounts of information and can be useful in administrative tasks such as staffing and scheduling. It could also assist in optimal fund allocation and utilisation. For example, a hospital with only one ambulance could potentially serve double the need if a smart AI were determining the optimal route through traffic.

For patients in the future, an AI could help diagnose common illnesses and schedule appointments with the relevant doctors based on the symptoms. Dr Watson, based on IBM’s Watson AI is already diagnosing cases where doctors are failing to do so. A smart toilet could analyse samples to detect any anomalies and instruct the smart fridge to stock up on the relevant food. The health app in your phone would send this initial diagnosis to a doctor, who could send back a proper treatment plan without you having to visit the hospital.

The Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled, connected future of healthcare will depend on the telecom infrastructure that carries this information. With smartphones and data packs becoming increasingly affordable, a foundation has already been laid. Regulatory support is apparent with the Government’s Digital India focus and the new National Telecom Policy, which aims to fully integrate telecom into India’s socio-economic fabric.

The importance of real-time communication is perhaps nowhere best demonstrated than the healthcare industry. Coordination between doctors, nurses and hospital staff is critical when one is in the business of saving lives. If ambitious programs such as BharatNet can be implemented at the promised speeds, much of the country’s connectivity problems would be solved.

As a consequence, rural areas would benefit from faster, customised healthcare. Security will be a big concern in a data-focused future, and care must be taken at both the policy and provider end to ensure no leaks of confidential medical data.