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Technology: An Equaliser In Public Healthcare

National Health Authority’s former CEO RS Sharma on technology’s potential to transform public healthcare in nations which are at a cusp of growth and development

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Technology has pervaded each sector from agriculture to education to finance in today’s world and it is evident that public healthcare cannot remain untouched from its impact. When the pandemic wreaked havoc on our world's socioeconomic fabric and strained our already overburdened healthcare systems, digital health solutions such as surveillance applications, vaccination platforms, data monitoring dashboards, and remote clinical management providers bridged the gap in healthcare delivery, making patients' healthcare seeking journeys convenient in the midst of a crisis.

India, a low- and middle-income country indigenously harnessed digital public goods such as Aarogya Setu, a contact tracing application and CoWIN which not only helped vaccinate over 2 million citizens in India but was used by other developing countries to spearhead their vaccination strategy. The private sector which was the frontrunner in the advent of health technology also garnered market traction as health professionals and citizens, both flocked telehealth platforms to seek consultations. These examples are a testimony to the enormous potential of frugal innovation and technology in improving healthcare and place the spotlight on the need for introducing these in providing quality services to the last mile. 

However, it cannot be denied that multiple challenges plague the health systems of developing countries, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. First and foremost, lack of interoperability and fragmentation across sectors, applications and platforms has been persistent in the healthcare domain. Additionally, the conventional patient journey has been replete with many obstacles. Lack of awareness, difficulty to reach the right provider, long commute and waiting times at hospitals, delay or denial of adequate care, loss or absence of health records, repeated visits with negligible follow up, amount to high out of pocket payments and poor health outcomes for common people.  

Some of the ways health technology can be a prong for public healthcare and solve for these challenges include increase access to medical information, improved diagnosis and treatment options, and building overall efficiency in healthcare systems.

For example, mobile health (mHealth) technology can provide people in underserved areas with access to health information, resources, services through text message-based health education, telemedicine, allowing people to receive consultations, specialist care and advice without having to travel to a physical health facility and opportunity to schedule appointments or order lab tests at home, saving their time and wages.  In this way, the possibility for technology to address disparities in healthcare multiplies and people in rural or remote areas who may otherwise have limited access  become competent to avail the benefits of digital technologies at their door steps. 

Another way, digital solutions aid citizens is through creation and management of their electronic health records.  This helps in accurate tracking of patient’s medical information, efficient communication between healthcare providers to make more informed treatment decisions which can lead to better patient outcomes. 

Therefore, it can be gathered that digital tools are an effective, efficient and secure means to deliver healthcare services. The Government of India also recognised the potential and possibilities of using digital technologies in health and launched the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM). It aims to build an agile and comprehensive digital public infrastructure, which can serve as a blueprint for developing countries. Through building blocks such as Ayushman Bharat Health Account, Personal Health Records application, Unified health interface and verified registries such as Health Facility, Professional and Drug Registry, ABDM envisions to enable different and disparate stakeholders from public and private sector to come together under an overarching scheme and leverage interoperable digital platforms. India’s Digital health infrastructure can open doors for developing countries to learn and collectively build a global interconnected health ecosystem, supporting the vision of Universal Health Coverage.  

In conclusion, with right use of right technology, there is tremendous potential to transform public healthcare in nations which are at a cusp of growth and development. It has the capacity to empower citizens to avail healthcare regardless of who they are or where they live.   However, we must remember to not treat technology as a silver bullet solution. It should be regarded as an enabler, a facilitator and a medium for making healthcare available, accessible, and affordable in order to achieve positive health outcomes for all.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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magazine 25 March 2023 healthcare

R.S. Sharma

The author is the Former CEO National Health Authority

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