The healthcare industry in India is growing at a CAGR of 22% and is projected to reach USD 372 billion by 2022. Leveraging AI, ML, and other modern technologies, the Indian healthcare landscape is on the cusp of a major digital transformation.
The Indian market has always been in a dire need of innovative, sustainable and scalable healthcare technologies to improve lives, owing to the vast inequalities in healthcare distribution, lack of trained healthcare clinicians and related infrastructure gaps, further compounded by the low allocation of government funds. India has a population of over a billion, with a vast majority of people connected via a smartphone, yet the impact of digital healthcare technologies hasn’t had a significant impact; until this year when numbers surged mostly because of COVID induced consumer and behavioral changes. This trend towards digitally augmented healthcare, compounded by government spending, better access to healthcare information and increased awareness towards preventive health measures are all signs of an industry under transformation.
Before we look at how digital transformation can impact healthcare, let’s look at some of the critical challenges faced by the sector in India. Affordability remains a critical factor as the masses look for cheap and affordable options. Accessibility, because of the relatively low ratio of healthcare professionals to the population is another big challenge. In order to meet global benchmarks, we are short of 6.4 million healthcare professionals. Poor technology infrastructure, lack of standards, privacy concerns, gaps within pharma, payer and provider ecosystems, and lack of comprehensive regulations further make the situation worse.
Looking ahead, the Indian market is well poised to deal with these gaps in various facets like skill, geographical, infrastructure, access and urban-rural spending capacity divide. The government is taking active measures through initiatives like National Digital Health Mission, AyushmaanBharat, PM-JAY, etc. By providing a Universal Health ID to repositories of doctors, practices and electronic medical records for everyone; these government initiatives, further fueled by past initiatives like Digital India mission, Aadhar, etc., are creating a good platform for digital transformation of healthcare in India.
Let’s see the below trends as the major contributors towards the adoption of digital technologies in healthcare.
Telemedicine in India has come a long way from its humble beginning in 2001 when ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), as part of a pilot project, linked Apollo Hospital in Chennai with the Apollo Rural Hospital at Aragonda village in Andhra Pradesh. It is emerging as a growth vector, especially after COVID. A report in McKinsey points out that with the advancement of telemedicine, India can save up to 5 billion USD on a yearly basis. There have been changes in the telemedicine practice guidelines which enabled companies like Practo to report a growth of 500% in just a matter of months. Other start-ups such as M-fine, myUpchar, Tattvan, Lybrate and DocsApp are some of the emerging players in this area.
Though at a nascent stage in India, Blockchain can help to optimize the pharma value chain, leading to increased transparency, efficiency and tracking. It can play a key role in improving accountability and trust in the overall healthcare space. A pilot conducted by the government thinktank NITI AYOG, along with industry participation confirmed this. Emerging startups like Ethereum Health Wallet, PSI PHI Blockchain Labs, Primechain, etc. are all doing some good work to further advance this segment.
AI/ML is one technology that is touching all facets of the healthcare ecosystem. From identifying new molecules to predicting adverse events, from forecasting across the supply chain to predicting the next best action for the reps to suggesting best treatment pathways and the usage of AI in healthcare is very diverse and deep. Genetic and Deep learning techniques; coupled with advanced options like Quantum computing are going to further open new doors.
Both large organization like Phillips, Siemens, Microsoft, Amazon to small startups like Doxper, Niramai, SigTuple, etc. are all working actively in this space. For example, Microsoft has tied up with organizations like Narayana Health, Forus Health, Apollo Hospitals, SRL Diagnostics to cover a broad range of use cases from diabetic retinopathy to histopathology. COVID has further increased the pace of AI adoption. According to a recent report by PwC (AI: An opportunity amidst a crisis), AI adoption in India increased by 45%, the highest increase when compared to other major economies of the world. The government too, with programs like the National strategy on AI and initiatives like Responsible AI for Social Empowerment (RAISE) are raising awareness and creating a collaborative ecosystem for all sectors, including for healthcare.
Robotics is emerging as a key enabler. From precision surgery to contactless patient services, the usage of robotics is increasing by the day. Fortis Hospital introduced the Mitra robot, that uses facial and speech recognition technologies to screen visitor for COVID symptoms of cough, fever and fatigue. Similarly, Stanley Medical College Hospital in Chennai introduced the “robotic nurse” to deliver medicines and food to patients.
AR/VR too has great applications in healthcare. It can help with pain management, cognitive rehabilitations and for patients. With real-life simulations, it can make training more engaging and practical for medical students. Even for doctors, it can help with surgery, conducting training and to provide holistic care to patients. Medical practitioners, drug makers and hospitals in the country are increasingly using VR and augmented reality (AR) technologies to help in therapy, surgery, marketing and spreading medical awareness with the help of technology providers such as Loop Reality, InceptionX, Health Connect Digital and Imaginate Labs.
Internet of things (IoT) brings in massive integrative capabilities. Leveraging the power of interconnections and data can have a dramatic transformative impact, connecting the payer, pharma and provider to the patients. A rapid increase in adoption of smart watches, fitness trackers, pacemakers and other sensor-based devices, including modern mobile phones are all driving the proliferation of usage of IoT in healthcare. Companies like Forus Health, Cardiac Design Labs, Bagmo are using IoT successfully for areas like remote retina imaging, cardiac tracking, blood bag monitoring. As 5G deployment goes through and devices become more affordable, this area will grow further.
While these are some of the most important technology enablers, there are foundational digital capabilities like cloud, mobile, internet, software, etc. that further enhance the power of these technologies. With all the data being generated from IoT and EHR/EMR systems, powered by concepts like federated learning and edge computing, combined with the power of AI and robotics at scale will have a significant impact on healthcare.
Even though the adoption of these technologies has been slow, India has great potential for digital transformation in healthcare with the surging technology penetration, rising population, reducing cost and accelerating healthcare awareness. COVID has further given wings to these ambitions and with increased government spending and favorable policies, a vibrant startup ecosystem, presence of R&D/GDC of large health-tech companies and upcoming 5G launch, the sky certainly looks brighter.
By Abhishek Trigunait, Global CTO, ZS Associates