By Ashim Roy
For a population of 128 crores, India has 10.12 lakh doctors. Of these, a recent KPMG report says, 74 per cent cater to only a third of the urban residents. In other words, there are only about 2.63 lakh doctors catering to the majority of Indians residing on the fringes of urban settlements and in rural areas.
On the other hand, India has more than 90 crore mobile phone connections. Studies show that in 2008 the number of devices connected to the Internet was more than the number of people on Earth! By 2020, the prediction is that there’ll be nearly 50 billion (5000 crore) ‘Connected Things’. Thanks to the ever-growing reach of broadband Internet and smartphones, we now have novel opportunities to bridge the healthcare gap.
For Indian healthcare, the game changer will be the combination of Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The challenge is to bring in new generation of healthcare solutions at the primary care level, with focus on preventive care.
Today, the smart watch keeps tabs on the blood glucose levels, while smart implants communicate patient parameters in real-time to doctors. There are supercomputer systems that help oncologist make informed decisions about cancer care and treatment. New-age diagnostic devices and mobile health applications are altering the healthcare landscape.
We can draw a parallel with the mobile telecom technologies. While developed economies went through many generations of technology evolution to reach the current LTE standard, India had a late start and consequently skipped some of the early generations of analog technologies, swiftly migrating from 2G to 3G and now to LTE. In healthcare delivery, IoT and AI can achieve the same progression. From improving the precision of medical care and increasing the accuracy of medical data to facilitating continuous monitoring of patient status and real-time access of patient reports for better responsiveness in emergency situations, the scope for development is immense.
According to industry reports, the healthcare AI market is projected to grow from $667 million in 2016 to nearly $8 billion by 2022, while the healthcare IoT market is expected to reach $72.02 billion by 2021 from $22.5 billion in 2016. Naturally, healthcare majors, technology giants as well as innovative startups are making a beeline for the IoT and AI healthcare space.
Unfortunately, most of the cutting-edge innovations and technology breakthroughs in medicine get limited to corporate hospitals in cities. Seldom do they reach the 72 percent of the populace in rural India. Blame it on the lack of infrastructure and trained medical personnel, the poor accessibility or low affordability, the fact remains that rural healthcare presents a mammoth challenge.
Our focus needs to be on preventive care – to identify and diagnose the problems through early intervention. For that, we need innovative thinking and creative solutions, which have the following attributes:
For deeper penetration into the rural areas, we need to look at low-cost clinical grade diagnostics that can be deployed in primary health centres.
Given that there’s about 81 per cent shortage of specialists in rural health centres, the patient data needs to be shared with medical experts (in cities) through network-connected health sensors. IoT makes that possible.
For diagnostic devices to be used effectively in a rural setting, the lightweight, handheld variety works best. Physicians and healthcare workers must be able to easily carry the devices.
Robust devices that are easy to maintain are most suitable for the primary care environment.
Interpretation of diagnostics data to start the intervention requires consultation with a specialist. While IoT facilitates data portability, AI helps primary care physicians perform faster diagnosis, leading to timely, life-saving interventions. Besides, the key driver for preventive care is predictive diagnosis based on AI.
The big picture
Technology cannot be a substitute for doctors. However, it can help medical professionals to reach out to patients in less-developed areas, where access to quality healthcare remains a concern. Remote clinical monitoring, chronic disease management and preventive care become feasible propositions when IoT and AI join hands in the healthcare sphere.
Data is knowledge. And the adoption of Electronic Health Records is already augmenting the volume of patient data. As more and more digital records get collected, healthcare planners will get empowered to deal with bigger issues. Health demographic maps can be created to:
Identify the prevalence of different types of illnesses in different parts of the country.
Detect disease outbreaks in the early stages.
Identify overuse of certain types of medical procedures or certain types of drugs.
Establish norms based on actual medical records rather than prevalent statistical models.