At the Edge of a Revolution- Healthcare Is Going Virtual

Esteemed professional & president of Delhi Medical Council (DMC), Dr Arun Gupta shares an insightful peek into the future of healthcare and the potential of impact it can create.

Healthcare, for decades, has been dependent on physical interactions between the patient and the healthcare providers. From visiting the nearest clinic, getting medicines from the pharmacy or even getting blood drawn for tests, patients have hadto physically travel to access any medical assistance. 

This, however, changed with the introduction of technological innovation in healthcare through telemedicine. In the past few years, the sector has exponentially grown and evolved to meet better and higher standards of healthcare, and many tech-enabled healthcare companies have aided in that progression. The paradigm shift witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear example of how the advent of digital healthcare helped save millions through telemedicine. 

According to a report by an Indian healthcare company Practo, during the pandemic more than 5 crore Indians accessed healthcare online, with 80 per cent of them being first-time telemedicine users. 

While telemedicine clearly demonstrated its potential and impact in the last couple of years, it is only the beginning. Innovation for the future of healthcare has a lot more in store especially with the introduction of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) in medicine. The journey of digital healthcare so far has been one to marvel but with futuristic technology striving to reduce the gap of access to high-quality and patient-centric healthcare, the sector is at the edge of a revolution.

Telemedicine’s Journey So Far

Before we delve into what the future holds for healthcare, let us take a moment to trace telemedicine’s journey so far. Unlike popular belief, telemedicine is not a recent development, rather it can be traced back to the late 1800s, when the telephone was invented. Since then, a stream of technological innovations followed that improved the usefulness of telephone communication in various sectors, especially healthcare, thus paving the way for telemedicine. From that to instant online consultations of today, healthcare delivery aided by technology has come a long way. 

In India, where almost 65% of its population lives in rural areas with limited to no access to quality healthcare, telemedicine turned out to be a boon that found its deserved recognition during the pandemic. At a time when the healthcare sector was stretched beyond its capacity, grappling to support the multiplying volume of patients, telemedicine rose to become a lifesaver. 

Boost to Telehealth- Private Public Collaboration

In an effort to aid to realise telemedicine’s true potential, the Indian government took a big step with the removal of regulatory barriers with the release of the Telemedicine Practice Guidelines in 2020. 

Another initiative that reflected collaborative efforts of public and private institutions to support digital healthcare, was the eSanjeevani Telemedicine initiative. Launched by the Union Health Ministry in November 2019, it provided online medical services through eSanjeevani Ayushman Bharat-Health and Wellness Centre(AB-HWC) and eSanjeevani OPD and was the first-ever online OPD (outpatient) consultation service offered by any government for its citizens.

This further ushered in the creation of the Ayushman Bharat Health Account (ABHA) or Digital Health ID- a 14-digit number to help users to access and share their health records digitally with registered healthcare providers.

Through these initiatives, public and private organisations are striving to connect different stakeholders of the healthcare ecosystem via digital highways, to provide patients with a truly accessible, affordable and agile healthcare delivery system. 

Telehealth’s Future is Virtual

Virtual healthcare

While these steps have marked the path for the future of healthcare in India and across the globe, the move towards healthcare aided by virtual reality is set to be the leading edge in the sector’s evolution. 

Although telemedicine has primarily focused on transmitting medical information to create a seamless channel of healthcare delivery, VR has the potential to enhance that through advanced communication interface. It will enable more intuitive, efficient and accurate interaction between the patient and healthcare professionals. In other words, the idea is to use digital connections to imitate life-like interactions that can enhance the quality of digital healthcare delivery. 

A possible example of making this a reality could be through the Microsoft Mesh– a holoportation and mixed reality platform that enables such life-like interactions.The Microsoft cloud for healthcare announced last year has a substantial focus on virtual health, as well as its mixed reality device called Hololens that is being explored for both non-operative as well as surgical procedures to provide accurate and efficient medical care remotely.  

Successful application of VR and AR in healthcare have already been found in treating paediatric patients. For instance, in Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, doctors and researchers found that use of VR headsets helped reduce anxiety and procedural pain among children, during tests that involved routine blood draws.  

However, its impact can be felt across age groups. For instance, a study with war veterans suffering from PTSD found that patients were more comfortable opening up to virtual interviewers than human therapists. And, a pilot project by Florida-based company CarePredict, is testing AI applications in managing senior care in nursing homes and memory care facilities. 

Closer home, as a SmartCity initiative in Delhi, Health ATMs are being installed in public places like parks, markets, hospitals, etc. which will allow patients to get more than 50 tests done for a nominal fee. These are to function like 24X7 Health ATMs that can enable full-body check-up in just 10 minutes, using advanced technology. 

While these examples are promising, we have barely scratched the surface with VR, AR and AI technologies. And, to do so, as a community of healthcare professionals, we ought to think of its long-term potential and its ability to provide efficient and quality healthcare that is patient-centered at all times. At the end of the day, the goal should be to provide digital healthcare without compromising on the sensitive and humanistic touch that has and will always be the cornerstone of quality healthcare delivery. 

Dr Arun Gupta

An esteemed professional, Dr Arun Gupta, MD Pediatrics is the president of Delhi Medical Council (DMC) and a senior consultant at Fortis Hospital Delhi. He did his post-graduation in pediatrics from SS Medical College, Rewa, Madhya Pradesh and has been practicing Pediatrics for the last 30+ years and is also a member of the Covid task force under the government of Delhi.

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