when we talk of tele-medicine the first thing that comes to our mind is helplines. Like the 104 helpline that has been running in Assam and Andhra Pradesh. The success of the 104 helpline has led to it being set up in Karnataka as well.
But Tele-Medicine is more than just helplines. It is the delivery of healthcare consultancy, advice and treatment guidelines over technology negating the need for the patient and doctor to be co-located. It is nothing but the extension of how we work in virtual teams, connected by internet and telephony.
What makes Tele-Medicine a necessity in India is the distribution of the Indian population, 70 % of which is spread over 700,000 villages in India, most with population less than 1000 people. The second factor necessitating the need for Tele-Medicine in India is the lack of doctors and trained nurses. If current estimates are to believed there is a short fall of 600,ooo doctors in India. To add to it now we have low cost portable monitoring device like the $ 100 Ultra Sound developed by GE. and Finally we have the wide spread reach of mobile communication, where India has more mobile phones than toilets.
According to a report by Infinity research the global tele-medicine market is around $ 9 billion with a CAGR of around 20 %. But the Indian market is relatively very small at about $ 7.5 Million according to a quote from KSA Technopak in a Wharton interview.
When I was a practicing dentist, I would often receive telephone calls from my friends and relatives for advice on their dental problems. I have also analysed and studies X rays sent over MMS and SMS and given by diagnosis. So I was way into Tele-medicine space before it was established as a practice. Even today my colleagues give advice and prescriptions to their patients over phone for non critical symptoms.
But the challenge remains can doctors make money by consulting over phone? Because the basis of capitalism is gtting compensated for effort otherwise the idea does not take off.
In my search for the answer, I came across the Hyderabad based start up “Hello my Doctor”. Founded by Raj SN, the venture is looking at ways to monetize phone consultations for doctors. ” Most Doctors are already consulting patients over phone” Says Raj, “Our vision was to create a platform by whoch doctors could provide consultation for their existing patients”.
The system is based on the simple fact that doctors should be able to provide preliminary care over phone and cal only those patients that require intervention to the clinics. That was both the doctor and the patientcan optimize their time. Currently Hello my doctor has around 150 doctors already registered, and Raj and his team are embarking on the next step and that is to educate the patients on the advantages of Tele-medicine consulting.
The process is simple, the patients receive a toll number and an extension number of the doctor they want to reach. The doctor chooses how much he wants to charge for the consultation. ” We usually advice the doctors to set limits per minute as it goes along with the call metering methodology followed by most telecom providers”
The patient has to buy coupons for various denominations from the site and then he can call his doctor. The doctor also sets the best times that he is available for the consultation. So this is a win win situation as the doctor saves time and gets paid for consulting over phone and the patient is able to talk to the doctor and probably avoid a visit to the clinic.
But doctors want more than just tele-consulting their existing patients, they would ideally want to take on more patients through this medium. and this is where patient education becomes important and a necessary step for the idea to succeed.
This model is unique and has been successfully been implemented in UP by US based World Health Partners. They have set up an extensive Tele-Medicine network in UP, which has received almost 35,000 calls till date since 2008. All patients requiring intervention are then directed to WHP’s franchisee clinics in the area. The model covers Meerut, Bijnor and Muzzafarnagar. The solution is branded under the name of Sky Care Providers and Sky Health Centers. All of them are provided basic training and given infrastructure to enable them to run the Tele-Medicine centers.
Similar system is being run by Apollo group, Narayana Hruduyalaya, Aravind Eye Hospital and Asia Heart Foundation. But none of them have the scale currently to cover the entire nation.
In such a situation the state supported 104 numbers seem to be the best bets. also in my opinion there is a need to develop these facilities with a focus on providing primary care and basic consultation which can cover the bulk of the Indian population.
But a public helpline number funded by Pharmaceutical and Medical Device firms seems to be another option that is opening up. Raj SN of Hello my Doctor is working on one such model.
Some very successful initiatives like the AIDs helpline in Hyderabad are a testament to the fact that Tele-medicine has a future in the country.”The AIDs helpline receives more than 700 calls a day” Says Raj “And that shows that there is a need”
In conclusion, Telemedicine is all set to erupt in the Indian Healthcare Space. What it needs is a push and hopefully efforts like the 104 numbers and ‘Hello my Doctor” would just give the right fillip to lead India to healthier times.