The progressive adoption of information and communication technology (ICT) solutions has changed the face of the healthcare industry. All aspects of the healthcare value chain from problem diagnosis to preventive healthcare have witnessed massive modernisation due to the proliferation of ICT solutions. In addition, these solutions have brought about significant improvement in the public healthcare space by providing expert medical care to patients even in the remotest regions of the country.
As we move towards the era of internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud technologies, ICT-enabled connectivity would play a pivotal role in catapulting India’s healthcare sector into an integrated, efficient and patient-centric space. This will help in changing the current focus from curative care to value-based care promoting wellness and well-being.
A look at the key ICT tools that are enabling the transformation of the healthcare industry in India…
IoT, with its patient-centric approach and far-reaching benefits, has the capability to revolutionise the delivery of healthcare services in India. This technology is being used to track the progression and treatment of diseases; monitor patients’ health conditions and alter their medication levels accordingly; track medicine usage data to ensure adherence to treatment plans; and provide real-time information on symptoms of diseases. Another important application of IoT in healthcare is remote health monitoring. Under this, devices fitted with sensors notify the concerned healthcare providers whenever there is any change in the vital organs of a person. These devices are capable of applying complex algorithms and analysing them rapidly to ensure that the patient receives proper attention and timely medical treatment.
Apart from monitoring patients’ health, there are many other areas where IoT devices are being used. IoT devices tagged with sensors are used for tracking real-time location of medical equipment like wheelchairs, defibrillators, nebulisers, oxygen pumps and other monitoring equipment. IoT devices also help in asset management like pharmacy inventory control and environmental monitoring. For instance, the technology can help in checking and moderating refrigerator temperature and humidity at pharmacies.
In addition, IoT wearables such as smart watches have become a rage among people. Other products based on IoT include walking sticks, monitoring patches, heart rhythm detectors and fitness bands, which not only calculate calories spent and number of steps taken, but also work as ECG monitoring devices, blood count tests and sometimes even serve as SOS devices.
Cloud and big data analytics
The increasing availability of medical data has opened up avenues for the utilisation of cloud and big data analytics in the healthcare space. While cloud allows individuals and entities to acquire, store, process, secure and optimise patient data, big data analytics enables enterprises to analyse this data.
Hospitals such as Max Healthcare are already using cloud technology to securely connect archives of medical information such as radiology images, lab reports and patient charts with the devices of clinicians. This reduces the turnaround time and helps treat a higher number of patients. Further, the proliferation of electronic medical records, hospital information systems, picture archiving and communication systems and other advanced clinical applications is creating a critical need for data storage and its quick retrieval whenever required, which can only be provided by cloud technology. The cloud is also emerging as a key tool for collaboration between the government and non-governmental organisations for healthcare projects.
Meanwhile, big data analytics is enabling enterprises to improve capacity planning and resource management by analysing data in the form of patient care records, prescriptions, diagnostic tests and equipment-generated data for monitoring vital signs. Further, big data can help enterprises analyse the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of ailments and examine the impact of lifestyle on a disease by using devices and applications that monitor chronic diseases. Besides, advanced data analysis techniques synthesise and summarise key research, enabling doctors to undertake more personalised care. Big data can also assist in follow-up care, thus preventing the relapse of a disease.
m-health and telemedicine
The proliferation of smartphones in rural areas has enhanced the scope of using m-health and telemedicine services for improving the public health scenario in the country. In fact, telemedicine is one of the fast growing segments in the healthcare space as it can help overcome challenges associated with access, cost and quality of healthcare services. It aims to provide healthcare services beyond geographic, time and social barriers. Usually, these services are targeted at remote regions where there is a shortage of physicians or specialists.
Telemedicine enables patients in remote locations to easily access and obtain any kind of clinical services. Further, it allows specialised professionals in urban locations to provide emergency and intensive care services to hospitals in rural regions through telemedicine technologies. It also makes it possible to monitor patient health remotely by collecting and sending medical data through electronic means for immediate interpretation. Such remote access monitoring is greatly beneficial for home-bound critical patients whose constant monitoring is a must. Meanwhile, m-health primarily comprises mobile applications that connect doctors to patients and enable remote consultations between them. M-health applications collect health data through devices such as mobile phones, tablets and wearables, deliver healthcare information, undertake real-time monitoring and provide care through mobile telemedicine.
AI is another key tool that is set to gain ground in the healthcare space. It helps create a personalised environment for both patients and healthcare service providers. Some of the key areas where AI is currently being implemented in the country are:
- Diagnosis: A number of start-ups are making use of AI for medical diagnosis. For example, Indian start-up Qure.ai uses deep learning and machine learning technologies to help diagnose an array of diseases and further recommends personalised treatment plans for its users. Further, enterprises like Max Healthcare are using IBM Watson for recognising cancer cells in their patients’ bodies at an early stage. The company is also experimenting with AI in radiology to improve report analysis.
- Performing surgeries: New technologies, including AI, are paving the way for faster and more precise methods of conducting surgeries.
- Drug discovery: Companies like Atomwise are making use of AI technologies to find pure antidotes to some of the world’s most infectious and fatal diseases such as Ebola.
- Health monitoring: This is another area where AI has gained a strong foothold. Wearable health devices are used to track the heart rate and other medical symptoms. These devices are further being updated to send alerts to the saved contacts in case they detect a medical abnormality.
- Other areas: AI is also being used to perform certain repetitive tasks like analysing laboratory tests, X-rays and CT scans. Further, AI-based applications can be used to assess the current medical condition of a patient and provide medical assistance based on personal medical history and intelligence gathered through analytics.
Challenges and the way ahead
Although ICT has become a vital tool for improving the operational efficiency of healthcare enterprises, several challenges continue to hinder its quick adoption. These include issues related to storing, handling and safeguarding enormous amounts of health data; lack of technical training among healthcare professionals for using ICT solutions; and incompatibility and non-interoperability of various medical and health monitoring devices in terms of hardware, software and firmware.
However, challenges notwithstanding, ICT adoption in the healthcare sector is poised to grow at an unprecedented rate in the coming years. As per industry reports, the healthcare industry will invest $6 billion by end 2021 to incorporate AI in its day-to-day operations. Apart from AI, robotics is going to witness significant traction in the healthcare space, particularly in conducting surgeries. Some hospitals such as Apollo and Max have already started using robotics for surgeries while others, including Safdarjung Hospital, are in talks to adopt this advanced technology.
Net, net, the pervasive adoption of disruptive technologies like AI and robotics across the healthcare value chain would play an essential role in realising the country’s vision of making healthcare accessible and affordable to all.
Kuhu Singh Abbhi