I changed as a consumer and how it's impacted the healthcare industry

On the mend…

I never warmed up to the idea of consulting doctors remotely or buying medicines online. It isn’t satisfactory enough until the doctor sticks a stethoscope on the back and instructs to heave before prescribing medicine. But, never say never. When venturing to a clinic is ironically unsafe and movement is restricted due to lockdowns, one has no choice but to turn to telemedicine when the need arises. The crop of online doctor consultation apps and e-pharmacies has proved to be a boon in the last 15 months, allowing me to meet the healthcare needs of my family while living in a different city.

The pandemic has changed me as a consumer. And if statistics are to be believed, I am not alone. Since the lockdown started in March 2020, Practo Technologies has seen a 600% growth in online consultations, and 70% of all were first-time telemedicine users.

How is this shift in consumer behaviour changing the healthcare industry? In more ways than one, I reckon.

The underutilized e-healthcare system is going far and beyond…

From appointment booking to consultation, prescription to ordering medicines, all touchpoints in the cycle have gone digital in the past 15 months. Telehealth technologies are bringing people, physicians, healthcare systems together, especially for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients suffering at home during the pandemic.

In a way, the telemedicine infrastructure is turning out to be an effective preventive solution to mitigate the risks for COVID warriors and the survivors, by keeping a significant chunk of the infected population safe at home.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently advised hospitals and clinics to follow the trend and encourage the use of digital solutions on priority, to potentially ease the burden on an overstressed medical infrastructure. Apart from startups that are born in technology, traditional hospitals and clinics are increasingly investing in telehealth services, such as video consultations with sensors to detect health parameters, digital prescriptions, and remote testing.

Technology is making telemedicine possible for specialist consultations…

Several healthcare startups and technology providers have stepped up their strategies to include specialized consultations for medically complex treatments such as Oncology, Cardiology, and Neurology. Artificial intelligence (AI) is beginning to play an important role here.

There are known examples where AI has been used to remotely predict if a patient is at a high risk of contracting a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Mumbai-based uses Artificial Intelligence to detect abnormalities from chest X-rays for the past four years. Bengaluru-based NIRAMAI, a deep-tech startup, offers a radiation-free, non-invasive, non-touch, breast cancer screening solution for hospitals and diagnostic centres.

Synchronous telemedicine is also being used to remotely program neural therapies, such as deep-brain and spinal cord stimulation. Specialists now have digital scopes at their disposal to capture high-quality images and sounds from various parts of the body; and blood pressure monitoring systems that can be controlled remotely, while transmitting results over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Telemedicine to serve the rural population

As I write this a close friend opened a telemedicine center in rural Dakshina Kannada. With good internet connectivity, people in and around his village can walk into the center for consultations. Simply connect online with a cardiologist or any other super specialist in and around Mangalore or even Bangalore, at half the fees. Only if the case is serious is the patient advised to visit the nearest town hospital which is around 100 kms. In earlier times, visiting a doctor would imply an arduous journey to the town.

As the e-healthcare infrastructure improves and evolves, it is nudging more and more users to adopt online health services as their first point of contact for medical needs. The American academic medical center Mayo Clinic, which gets over 1 million patients annually, reported a 78% drop in in-person visits between March and April. At the same time, its digital front saw an enormous jump. With the advancement in technology, the pie of remote healthcare services is only going to rise. Thanks to the push this sector has received due to the COVID-19 crisis, the day is not far when serious ailments will be treated from the comfort of homes.

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