The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Tracing The Digital Leap In Indian Healthcare Through The COVID-19 Pandemic
As the world’s largest democracy, healthcare & well-being have been among the foundational pillars of development. From launching the world’s largest insurance scheme to being the unmatched vaccine manufacturing power during COVID-19, India has been hailed as the torchbearer of unparalleled determination & unmatched dedication towards health. Projected to reach $372 Bn by 2022, the Indian Healthcare sector is growing rapidly due to the provision of strengthened coverage, comprehensive services, and increasing expenditure by the Government. Presenting the Union Budget in the Parliament for FY 2021-22, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman prioritized the role of healthcare by allocating a budget of Rs. 2, 23, 846 Cr against the current year’s budgeted outlay of Rs. 94, 452 Cr, registering an increase of 137%. In addition, the Finance Minister also announced the launch of a new centrally sponsored scheme, PM AtmaNirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana, with an outlay of Rs. 64,180 Cr. to develop capacities of primary, secondary, and tertiary care health systems, strengthen existing national institutions, and create new institutions to cater to the detection and cure of new and emerging diseases.
What we saw during 2020 was the beginning of a complete paradigm shift, the onset of the “new normal”. We continued to witness changes in the way we communicate & work. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet became our new workspaces & meet-up places. Interestingly, another dimension that has been fundamentally changed & altered during the pandemic is the nature of healthcare delivery & the very ‘journey of care’ we take with healthcare professionals. The COVID-19 pandemic was a watershed moment that re-emphasized the importance of digital technologies to provide seamless care oriented towards patients and precipitated an astounding rise in digital practices amongst doctors, patients, and other stakeholders within the healthcare ecosystem.
Today India is entering a new era defined by telehealth or telemedicine as it is popularly known by moving past the traditional model of in-person consultations to redefine patients’ primary healthcare experience. According to a survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of 800 physicians across healthcare specialities in metropolitan & Tier 1 cities, 85% of clinicians reportedly used teleconsultations & a multitude of digital platforms during the national lockdown in order to provide better clinical care, which was safe, comprehensive, and inclusive. Interestingly, 65% of doctors found digital platforms to be an effective tool for patient interactions, with 50% highlighting the continued use of such platforms in the post-pandemic world. In addition to the doctors, most patients who sought care through online consultations and remote diagnostics found it extremely comfortable & easy to access. According to BCG, 80% of the teleconsultation services were from first time users, with 44 % consultations undertaken from non-metro locations, standing as testimony to the adoption & acceptance of the “digital” as the alternate model for healthcare delivery.
Owing to the disruptions arising & triggering from the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s Government accorded the much-needed recognition to telemedicine by launching the “Telemedicine Practice Guidelines” on March 25, 2020, as the first step towards changing the contours of healthcare delivery in the country. The Telemedicine Practice Guidelines-2020 intends to encourage the use of telemedicine as a part of standard clinical practice, outlines a sound course of action to provide effective & safe medical care constitutive of patient needs, and s out how digital technologies could be used in conjunction with other clinical standards, protocols, policies, and procedures for the provision of care. The Guidelines not only function as a strong linchpin for telemedicine services but also provide India the very fuel to emerge & rise as the global hub of telemedicine.
India has been taking significant steps to continue its growth trajectory and accelerate further in the sector, the rewards of which will be palpable to hundreds of millions of citizens irrespective of their social locale. To enable wider adoption of digital tools to improve care, the Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi announced the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) launch on August 15, 2020 to develop a robust digital infrastructure in order to unlock the potential of the national digital health ecosystem. The NDHM lays out the architectural framework to support universal health coverage in an efficient, accessible, inclusive, affordable, timely and safe manner, to provide a wide range of data, information and infrastructure services, and to ensure the security, confidentiality and privacy of health-related personal information by duly leveraging open, interoperable, standards-based digital systems. This expansive NDHM framework is also constitutive of National Digital Health Blueprint (NDHB) launched in 2019, National Health Stack (NHS) rolled out in 2018, & the National Health Policy (NHP), formulated in 2017, reflecting on how India’s digital surge is well under way in the healthcare sector & how the nation is emerging as the land of promise & hope.
All these collective efforts undertaken by the Government emphasize the paramount importance of the ‘digital’ in fundamentally transforming the Indian healthcare ecosystem. To say the least, digital healthcare is here to stay, pandemic or not.