The great telemedicine takeoff in Covid times


Telemedicine is a nontraditional way of providing healthcare services through the use of digital tools, contrary to inperson interaction. It has been a developing area in India for a few years now, but with coronavirus it became imperative to adapt to the new norm of digital healthcare.

“Last month I got a fever and panicked because of Covid-19 and how rapidly it is spreading. My concern was genuine. Our family doctor was unavailable and visiting a doctor in a hospital seemed dreadful. I was scared for my health and consulted a general physician on Lybrate. He took note of my symptoms and suggested medicines via e-prescription,” shares Praveen Kumar, a Delhi-based resident.

Like him, telemedicine has the potential to provide and increase access to medical care for millions of Indians to increase convenience for patients. Manasije Mishra, MD, DocOnline, believes that the emergence of telemedicine has made quality primary healthcare accessible in India. Mishra says, “We pay utmost attention to clinical quality with technology as an enabler. With specialised doctor training, evidence-based clinical tools for remote diagnosis and treatment, the doctors ensure that treatment benefits the patient.”

The pandemic has changed the way healthcare is functioning today, especially in India where the healthcare system’s vulnerabilities have been thoroughly exposed and many hospitals have become corona hotspots with a large number of doctors and patients contracting the infection. In such a scenario, telemedicine is an ideal option as it eliminates the risk of viral transmission from one person to another.

Dr K.K. Aggarwal, president CMAAO and HCFI, says, “It can also improve the overall patient satisfaction besides reducing healthcare costs and curbing cramming up the hospitals, all of this makes telemedicine a viable option for both patients and doctors going forward. It is time we utilise medical technology to our benefit, especially during the Coronavirus crisis.”

Telemedicine can also address healthcare inequalities by expanding its reach to districts, towns and villages of India. As per experts, telemedicine can help avoid non-emergency hospital visits by over 70%.

“India has a ratio of 0.7 doctors and 1.5 nurses per 1,000 people compared to the WHO’s ideal average of 2.5 doctors and nurses per 1,000 people and the scenario for a specialist is even worse,” says Satish Kannan, co-founder & CEO, MediBuddy-DocsApp. Given the fact that the geographical distribution of these doctors is skewed, with the help of technology, telemedicine apps ensure that anyone can access specialists from their fingertips thus making high-quality healthcare accessible to everyone.

 The added benefits include driving up efficacy for patients by providing them with more options and care and increased revenue for the healthcare industry. When asked about how telemedicine consultation is turning out to as a major step towards changing the paradigm of India’s healthcare industry, Dr Inder Maurya, Emergency Medicine and Critical care, CEO and founder of Foreign OPD, says, “With Covid-19, the Indian healthcare industry is in dire need of many business and systemic disruptions. The Medtech industry has to, therefore, rise to the fore and telemedicine is just a part of that giant ecosystem. Having said that, telemedicine consultation did see a surge and the long-pending telemedicine guidelines were issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW).”

 The government is recognising the value of telemedicine in tackling the pandemic and beyond. To further amplify Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to leverage telemedicine as a national priority, ‘Swasth’ was launched to deliver equal and affordable healthcare to all, cutting across geographical and income divides. “Telemedicine can give immediate consultations to patients which is the need of the hour owing to the scare of the pandemic. Let us not forget that Indians are the quickest to adapt to technology,” emphasises Dhruv Suyamprakasam, spokesperson of Swasth.

Digital primary healthcare is an excellent solution to tackle poor doctor to patient ratio and lack of robust primary healthcare infrastructure in India. Hence, the government has partnered with private players/NGOs to offer telemedicine services in many states. The government telemedicine initiatives have brought quality healthcare within the reach of people living in rural India. The revised telemedicine guidelines, increasing Covid-19 cases and recommendation from leaders to utilise telemedicine have resulted in a substantial increase in awareness and teleconsultations from urban India.

“Consequentially, hospitals are starting telemedicine services and insurance companies are evaluating to offer telemedicine benefits to their customers. While these initiatives will grow awareness, the acceptance for telemedicine will grow only with a balanced focus on technology and clinical excellence,” stresses Mishra.

Talking about the three tiers of personnel involved in a teleconsultant set up, Dr Pravin Krishna Vaddavalli, Head, Refractive Surgery, Cataract and Contact Lens Services and Consultant, Cornea & Anterior Segment Service, LV Prasad Eye Institute, says, “The tele-counselling staff is the first point of contact for patients and for providing advice about appointment availability and booking onsite appointments. The patient care staff is the second point of contact if required to help with emergencies and connect to doctors. It is followed by ophthalmologists in our case or specialised doctors.”

As per a recent report, there was a record 500% rise in healthcare teleconsultations, of which 80% were firsttime users. Dr Tarun Rajput, Smile Studio Gurgaon, uses mobile apps to enable regular and new patients to ask questions about oral care, make appointments or schedule emergency visits. He says, “Dentists are starting to take a closer look at how telehealth can improve their care delivery and the possibilities are numerous. Dental problems do not allow you the luxury to wait for weeks, it often needs immediate attention and telemedicine is a perfect solution to this.”

Though none of the most discussed ailments was in the domains of speciality or super-speciality, healthcare teleconsultation is here to stay and will be a new norm in the new world order.