Indian Healthcare’s Innovation Imperative: Technology Beyond Telemedicine

Indians have a higher risk of cardiac ailments, rising 34 per cent in 26 years, WHO says.

Over the past decade, India’s healthcare and pharma sectors have been on the upswing. The country today has become a credible and cost-effective maker of medicines, supplying a fifth of the world’s generic medicines and 50 per cent of its vaccines. Seemingly, India has gotten healthier, as increased spending, driven by economic growth, and improved health policies have catalysed a change across the country. However, this progress appears ephemeral, as India continues to lag on broader human development goals, ranking 130 of 171 countries on UNDP’s Human Development Index, with a need to make its investments in a stronger healthcare system count. For India’s healthcare and pharma industry to be truly world-class, we would have to embrace technology-driven innovation across the entire value chain.

Consider some of the numbers India’s healthcare practitioners are confronted with. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), there were nearly 2.74 million Tuberculosis (TB) cases reported in 2018, the highest prevalence globally. Poor reporting, incorrect or late diagnosis and limited access to antibiotics to treat the disease has stymied plans for its eradication.

Elsewhere, The Journal of Oncology has reported that as India ages, the rate of cancer in India will double every 20 years.

Sedentary lifestyle, a rapid increase in sugar intake and a genetic predisposition has made India the world’s diabetes capital, the number of people with Type 2 variant is forecasted to grow from 82 million in 2017 to 145 million in 2045, as per a study in Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.

Compounding this problem is India’s rickety healthcare infrastructure. The country has too few doctors and hospitals – 0.6 hospitals and 0.9 doctors per 1,000 people. 80 per cent of the population has no access to health insurance, government spending is limited at 1-1.5 per cent of its GDP on healthcare and as a result, people continue to be stricken—and die—from ailments that can be cured or at least managed.

The world is changing and so is India. There have been recent initiatives that are closing this gap and providing much needed relief for the sector. For example, the onset of telemedicine across the country has given patients in India’s hinterland access to specialists who may have been inaccessible otherwise. Improved connectivity and digitisation of tests such as X-rays have helped this network grow. Further, the launch of government programs such as Ayushman Bharat for insurance has aided over 5 million people. However, to make a transformative impact, India needs to embrace technology beyond silos such as telemedicine, to deliver quality healthcare to its billion-plus people.

These initiatives can go from cutting-edge innovation to detecting dangerous diseases such as TB and several types of cancer faster and cheaper, all the way to rethinking the way medicines and medical aids are produced. Consider the case of breakthrough research led by Renu John from IIT, Hyderabad, which led to the development of biomarker-based biosensors that can detect heart ailments in minutes compared to hours or days) and cheaper than existing tests. Elsewhere, the founders of a Mumbai-based start-up, have used artificial intelligence tools to rapidly interpret chest X-rays for a TB diagnosis. The tests can cost as little as $1, the founders say.

However, the potential for technology to upend and improve India’s healthcare systems is beyond specific disease discovery. As India builds out a robust universal healthcare model, maintaining a trade-off between cost, quality and access to healthcare services is critical. Digital healthcare, for example, allows systems to take advantage of existing resources and infrastructure and provide services directly to communities. India’s innate innovation competitiveness is paving the way for preemptive diagnosis, monitoring of seasonal and non-communicable diseases as well as predictive trends of ailments found in specific areas. The challenge for Indian healthcare innovators is to use technology for innovation but be mindful of India’s existing social and economic constraints.

Beyond its clinics and hospitals, India also needs to use its unique innovative engine to future-proof the way it makes medicines. As India seeks to remain a globally competitive pharma manufacturer, its facilities need to be connected, contained, and continuous. With the emergence of industry 4.0 and digital manufacturing globally, I believe that the facilities that can harness these technologies, especially the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), will prosper.

These technologies allow companies to cut down product development and research development time, which means huge savings in R&D spend. New innovations also enable makers to more accurately predict the quality outcomes of new drug delivery systems. Secondly, continuous facilities will not have any downtime and ensure greater productivity and consistent supply to the market. Further, technology and automation also deliver better compliance by decreasing manual intervention in the process of recording data.

Finally, there’s the opportunity to use emerging ideas such as nanoparticles and technology as well as robotics and automation to devise medicines that use more potent doses of a drug, with minimal human intervention. To contain facilities, machines will clean and wash. The advent of cutting-edge technologies such as 3-D printing will enable us to put more drug combinations—five to ten, rather than the current maximum of three—into medicines.

Across India’s healthcare and pharma sector, from patients to doctors to drug makers, technology could redefine the contours of this industry. Better access to doctors, cheaper and faster medical tests and technology-driven breakthroughs in drug-manufacturing form the foundation for India to leap forward in its holistic developmental goals.

The author is the Managing Director of ACG.


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