India's healthcare landscape's about to change in a big way
3-26-2015 0 Comments

Abhishek Vishwanathan

I’ve spent a lot of time in the waiting room at my family doctor’s clinic. Time that has been spent questioning why I need to pay a man with just an MBBS degree to prescribe the same medicines he always does to treat the same flu. Today, as most of us think of it as just an MBBS degree without a specialization, little do we realize that there are quacks and doctor’s compounders who’ve spent lesser time in a real doctor’s clinic than you or me.

These quacks masquerade as knowledgeable medical professionals in the remote villages of India. The villagers are none the wiser, heed their advice as gospel and swallow their pills in a last ditch attempt to access at least some form of healthcare. People in villages often have significantly poorer sanitation conditions than people in cities. They also have barely any access to trained medical professionals, with clinics and hospitals being few and far between. According to the Rural Health Care Foundation, 78% of the Indian population resides in rural areas and only 2% of medical professionals are available in these areas. As a direct consequence of this, many easily preventable diseases and illnesses go undiagnosed, untreated and ultimately end up being the undoing of the rural citizen. Few of us realize that they’re supposed to be entitled to the same social security and basic necessities that are afforded to urban dwellers. The right to receive medical help by a qualified medical practitioner in times of illness is one of the basic health-care rights to which all citizens are entitled (WHO, 1978).

The growing market of rural healthcare hasn’t gone unattended though. Opportunists jump at the prospects. The man that once read your family doctor’s scrawling and put tablets and capsules into those tiny envelopes for you to take home, now goes back to his village and dispenses half-baked medical advice and apparent quick-fixes to the medical grievances of villagers who don’t know any better. How are they to know that the tablets prescribed by the quack might relieve them of one ailment but severely debilitate a vital organ’s functioning? Since there is so much demand for medical attention from the rural community, people from nearby villages will flock to this unqualified man to receive second-hand advice based on anecdotal evidence, instead of consulting a qualified doctor that went through rigorous training at medical school to diagnose and treat each person’s specific condition.

There are some enterprises stepping up to the plate to address this issue. E-Health and M-Health are buzzwords being thrown around the global medical community for a few years now and it is about time Indian entrepreneurs jumped onto the bandwagon. The concept is fairly straightforward.

Here’s how it works:

Each village is set up with a Health Center that is equipped with a tablet with an internet connection, a wireless printer, medicines, clinical equipment and a local health worker. The local health worker is trained to record the patient’s vital parameters like temperature and blood pressure, ask the patient about the symptoms they are experiencing and can facilitate a video call between the rural patient and a trained medical doctor. The doctor, using his medical expertise and the information furnished to him, diagnoses the ailment and sends across a digitally signed prescription via the internet. Even diagnostic tests are facilitated by collecting the sample at the Health Center and transporting them to the lab in the city. The reports are then emailed back to the Center. In case an ailment is severe, the patient is provided with information about the specialists nearest to him.

M-Health is inexpensive, instantaneous and indispensable for every Indian village without a doctor. The absence of any trained individual to provide medical advice within close proximity to any citizen is a worrisome symptom for the nation as a whole, but it’s an increasingly hopeful sign there are trained professionals actually creating solutions to do something about it.