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Virtual health: Delivering care through technology

8 minutes, 52 seconds read

Virtual Care, Telehealth, Telemedicine, etc. are terms used very synonymously. Indeed they are interrelated, however, Virtual Care is a broader term in which healthcare providers use digital tools to communicate and deliver care to their patients. Telehealth and Telemedicine are a part of Virtual Care where doctors deliver care to their patients, remotely via phone, video, or instant messaging. Virtual health includes care delivery beyond video consultation where hospitals provide services using technology such as wearables for remote monitoring, instruments for post-op care and second opinions, e-pharma services, and medical information, etc. 

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic gave an impetus to Virtual Care, but even in the Pre-COVID time, the Healthcare sector was slowly gearing up for this next wave in care delivery. What COVID-19 did was, help patients get acclimatized to the digital health tools and services. 

What does Virtual Health help with?

The pandemic has brought the burning issues of the healthcare sector to center stage. Patient experience and access to healthcare services are key differentiators for people while choosing a healthcare provider. Let’s take a look at some of these issues addressed by technology in the healthcare sector-

The increasing number of patients

Apart from the pandemic, there’s already been a rise in the number of patients due to drastic changes in lifestyle and food habits, an increase in pollution levels, increase in new types of viruses, etc. This has caused undue stress on healthcare institutions and workers and has led to the deterioration of the quality of patient care. Virtual Health technology such as mobile healthcare apps, EHR (Electronic Health Record), video conferencing, etc. has helped reduce the pressure on hospitals.

Difficulty in traveling for old patients

The pace of life is increasing at a rapid rate. It is getting insanely difficult for the elder population to navigate through the traffic and commute long distances for a check-up. Many times, they have to depend on their family members to take them to hospitals. Moreover, they are at risk of exposure to viruses in hospitals and clinics. Now that they have had the experience of virtual consultations, they prefer care delivery at home rather than going to hospitals.

Chronic Diseases treatment

The number of people above the age of 45 face health issues. Some patients are suffering from chronic diseases regardless of age. Regular monitoring of their vitals is very important. Moreover people now prefer Virtual healthcare services which are easily accessible and save a lot of time, effort, and money. Now that people have found these services effective, they will opt for online consults rather than frequent in-person visits. 

Post-op Care

The duration of post-operative care is quite long and tedious. If given a choice, people will lean towards wearables which will help keep doctors posted on the status of the treatment. Many times, the cost of post-op care is more than the actual treatment and sometimes is not covered under insurance. Virtual care-delivery services will help reduce the financial burden of people going through these treatments.

Follow-ups/Second opinion  

Some health conditions need multiple follow-ups and second opinions to figure out the right approach to treat the issue. It is much easier for patients to do follow-up consults virtually rather than going through the tedious process of appointment booking, commuting, and waiting for their turn. It helps reduce the queue outside the doctor’s office as well. Some health issues need a second opinion, sometimes both by patients and doctors. Virtual Healthcare technologies make it possible for them to take second opinions from doctors all over the world. With electronic records and image sharing, doctors can diagnose the problem better.

What does Virtual Health include?

Virtual Health can be broadly divided into below applications-

mHealth Applications

Mobile health applications have widespread use. From symptom checkers to appointment booking, from fitness trackers to uploading medical records, from video conferencing features to chatbot integrations, mobile healthcare apps in India are on a rise mainly because of easy accessibility for the tech-savvy customers. According to a study by NCBI, among the 22 selected mobile healthcare apps in India, Practo, mfine, DocsApp, 1mg, Netmeds, Lybrate, MediBuddy, and Medlife were found to be the eight most popular ones with over a million downloads and on average four-plus user rating out of five. All the above apps are mainly being used for online consults. This just goes about showing that people prefer having homecare services instead of stepping out. 

E-Triage Tools

The rising number of patients with different stages of COVID symptoms was a task to deal with. E-triage software here enables hospitals to triage patients into different sections when there’s an overload of patients at a particular time. Now, in the case of home care, e-triage tools help patients to access the gravity of their health condition and notify the healthcare provider accordingly. Such tools help reduce A&E waiting time and improve NHS performance. Many companies are building healthcare software integrating the E-triage module within EHR, telemedicine, clinical decision making, billing, etc. In India, Persistent Systems’ cutting edge platform has a Nurse Triage system that enables nurses to see the queue of patients and triage via phone calls. Once the calls are done, a triage report is generated and sent to care providers. Many leading doctors feel that AI in image triage will see a boost in near future.

Remote Patient Monitoring 

There are multiple benefits such as reduced post-op expenditure, time wastage, less exposure to other diseases, etc. The global remote patient monitoring devices market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 7.1% during the forecast period (2019–2027) according to Coherent Market Insights. Some of the top players in this space are Biotronik, Boston Scientific Corporation, CAS Medical Systems, CONTEC MEDICAL, Dragerwerk, GE Healthcare, Guangdong Biolight Meditech, Medtronic, Mindray Medical, Nihon Kohden, Philips Healthcare, Spacelabs Healthcare, Abbott. Companies such as GE Healthcare and Philips Healthcare have done a great job with building remote patient monitoring systems within the hospital premises as well as homecare for COVID patients. The main goal was to reduce the exposure of healthcare workers to at-risk patients. 

Synchronous and Asynchronous Telehealth

Synchronous telehealth, in other words, Telemedicine is where there is a live conversation between the patient and the doctor. Asynchronous telehealth involves the exchange of recorded data e.g. images, video, medical reports, pathology reports between patients and doctors, at times between doctors as well. Similar to mHealth space, companies like Practo, 1mg, Lybrate, Medlife, and Portea Medical in India are some of the top players in telehealth and telemedicine. Lybrate’s USP lies in CMS (Clinical Management System) which helps doctors with tedious tasks of managing patients and providing better care. Meanwhile, Portea Medical’s home consults and pharma delivery have more relevance with the audience as it combines technology with a touch of personalization. 

Digital Therapeutics

Digital Therapeutics delivers evidence-based therapies with the help of software which can be used both as a preventive measure as well as treatment application. The effectiveness of the medication and lifestyle changes on patients are monitored by leveraging technology. In India, major non-communicable diseases that account for 62% of the total mortality rate are CVD, diabetes, respiratory conditions, and cancer. Prominent global players in this space include Noom (US), Livongo Health (US), Omada Health (US), WellDoc (US), Pear Therapeutics (US), Proteus Digital Health (US), Propeller Health (US), Akili Interactive Labs (US), Better Therapeutics (US), etc. Omada Health is the pioneer in the DTx (Digital Therapeutics) that focused primarily on diabetes and pre-diabetes but now is branching out in the mental health space as well. In India, Altran (a part of Capgemini) is into building personalized DTx applications for clients. Whereas a start-up called Wellthy Therapeutics has ready solutions catering to multiple diseases.

Future of Virtual Health

Undoubtedly, there has been a massive increase in the adoption of Virtual Health technologies as people have gotten accustomed to the ease of certain services at home. In the coming future, mobile health apps, remote patient monitoring, and Digital therapeutics see a surge in demand from the customers. According to a study by Markets and Markets, “The global digital therapeutics market is projected to reach USD 6.9 billion by 2025 from USD 2.1 billion in 2020, at a CAGR of 26.7% during the forecast period (2020–2025).” A study by Fortune Business Insights, “The global mHealth market size is projected to reach USD 293.29 billion by 2026, exhibiting a CAGR of 29.1% during the forecast period.” A Research and Markets report says, “The remote patient monitoring market is expected to reach US$31.326 billion by the end of 2023.” Apart from the above, development in digital infrastructure such as virtual health stations where doctors can provide consultations globally, mobile ICUs, MRIs, X-rays, ultrasound equipment, the establishment of rural virtual care units reaching the remote areas of the country are some of the trends which will gain momentum. The focus would always lie upon the personalization of the virtual care experience for patients driven by data exchange and interoperability. 

Indeed, there are certain challenges to the implementation of these technologies, lack of infrastructure, and digital literacy amongst elders and lower strata of society. Many healthcare institutions still have inhibitions while investing in digital technologies fearing rejection from the customers. It will be crucial for care providers to choose the right partner for implementing these technologies and create awareness amongst people to adopt them.  

In a Nutshell

The success of virtual care relies on how well the digital experience is designed for the patient. “By 2025, as many as 95 percent of all customer interactions will be through channels supported by artificial intelligence (AI) technology” – Microsoft. The use of algorithms and AI for personalizing these experiences will be the key. 

Find out more about unchartered territories in ‘Blue Ocean’ of Digital Health. Watch our webinar hosted by Parag Sharma (CEO, Mantra Labs) where he shares his insights on untapped opportunities using digital self-care tools within behavioral healthcare & emotional wellness.

Further Readings:

  1. Reimagining Medical Diagnosis with Chatbots
  2. HealthTech 101: How are Healthcare Technologies Reinventing Patient Care
  3. What will be the state of the healthcare industry post pandemic?
  4. Healthcare Chatbots: Innovative, Efficient, and Low-cost Care
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What will ‘Behavioural Changes’ Mean for India’s Digital Health Future

We are in the middle of a global pandemic, facing a threat unlike one never seen before. COVID-19 has been a reason for global concern since it has negatively impacted economies, shut down workplaces, and forced cities into lockdowns.

But history also tells us  that times of uncertainty also foster innovation. The pandemic has forced consumers and businesses to rethink how they behave both physically and digitally. As per McKinsey, COVID-19 has speeded up the adoption of digital technologies.

India, which was on the cusp of a ‘digital health’ revolution, has now been forced to embrace innovation and emerging trends. The healthcare sector holds great promise since new-age technologies like telemedicine, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), genomics, etc. are transforming healthcare services.

There have been unprecedented changes in consumer behaviour as well. People are now increasingly relying on using the internet to find clinical information or engage with healthcare professionals digitally. Moreover, online consultations, telemedicine, and e-pharmacies have seen a rise in popularity.

Companies will thus need to capitalize on the changing patterns of consumption and health-seeking behaviour.

This article focuses on how changing patient behaviour will affect India’s digital health future.

A growing Indian healthcare market

According to a report by Future Health Index, India is a leader in the adoption of digital health technology. As per India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), the Indian healthcare market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 22% to reach a valuation of USD 372 billion by 2022. This growth can be attributed to the following –

  • Growing health awareness
  • Aging population
  • Lifestyle-related diseases
  • Rising income levels
  • Growth of internet availability

The rise of digital health start-ups is also playing a role in the growth of the healthcare sector. Indian health tech startup landscape has now matured.

Over the last few years, telemedicine has emerged as a fast-growing sector in India. Prominent start-ups like Practo, mfine, and Lybrate have established themselves in the telehealth market. McKinsey estimates that India could save up to USD10 billion by 2025 by using telemedicine instead of in-person doctor appointments.

COVID-induced behavioural changes

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes to patient behaviour. The fear of leaving homes to get treatment has led to the growth of virtual care and telemedicine. 

As per a report by Accenture, almost 70% of the patients canceled or postponed their treatments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology, therefore, played a crucial role in helping patients continue their care. Healthcare providers were even able to improve the experience for patients by delivering them faster response time, personalized interactions, and the convenience of getting consultation from home.

The same report by Accenture highlights some key behavioural changes that are being observed in patients – 

  • Nearly half of the patients now get their treatment at their homes instead of visiting a clinic.
  • Almost 60% of patients want to continue using technology for communicating with healthcare providers.
  • About 41% of patients now use video conferencing to connect with their healthcare providers. Of these, for almost 70% of patients, it’s their first-time using video conferencing for healthcare.
  • Almost 44% of patients used new apps or devices during the pandemic to manage their health conditions.

All this highlights the need for healthcare providers to reimagine their patient engagement strategies in keeping with the changing patient behavior.

Future of digital health in India

New digital technologies and tools are making an impact across the healthcare sector. They hold great promise in improving the efficiency of healthcare services while delivering better patient care. Below are some of the technological developments that are expected to revolutionize the way we seek healthcare.

Telemedicine

About 68% of India’s population lives in rural areas where healthcare services are not usually up to the mark. This barrier can be overcome by telemedicine that offers an excellent way for patients to consult a doctor in a much shorter duration. Telemedicine can cut waiting times and allow patients to avoid traveling to a clinic or hospital. Some other benefits of telemedicine include –

  • Immediate access to specialist healthcare providers.
  • Cost-effectiveness.
  • Improved quality of care.
  • Convenience to the patients.
  • Improved patient engagement.

Internet of medical things (IoMT)

The rapid growth of IoMT devices is rapidly changing healthcare delivery by playing an important role in tracking and preventing chronic illnesses.

It not only helps eliminate the need for in-person medical visits but also helps reduce costs. Goldman Sachs estimates IoMT to save USD 300 billion annually for the healthcare industry. IoMT will benefit those patients the most who are unable to get access to quality healthcare due to remote location.

Big data in healthcare

There has been dramatic growth in the amount of medical and health data in the last few years. These massive datasets can be used to draw insights and opportunities for healthcare organizations. Analysis of healthcare data can help discover warning signs and create preventive plans.

The widespread adoption of IoT devices also makes it easier to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, etc. This can help in the early detection of diseases like hypertension, asthma, heart problems, etc.

Electronic medical records

Electronic medical records or EMRs help collect, digitalize patients’ information, and store it in a single place. EMRs store various types of medical data like medical history, prescriptions, drug allergies, etc. and allow doctors to make accurate disease prognosis in a much shorter time. Some other benefits of EMRs include – 

  • Effective medical decisions.
  • Easy data recovery.
  • Improved collaboration.
  • Portability.
  • Security of medical data.

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) has a big role to play in improving healthcare since growing digitization leads to the availability of a large amount of health data. AI has the potential to transform everyday health management in the following ways –

  • Improved accessibility of healthcare services (for example – the AI-based mobile app Ada is available across 140 countries and makes it possible for anyone to have access to medical guidance).
  • Improved efficiency.
  • Accurate disease diagnosis.
  • Improved insights to reveal early disease risks (for example – a popular app Verily can forecast noncontagious and hereditary genetic diseases).
  • Time and cost savings.

mHealth

Mobile health or mHealth refers to the monitoring and sharing of health data via mobile technology like health tracking apps or wearables. 

mHealth apps can prove to be beneficial in increasing patient engagement, providing health education, and offering remote consultations to patients. It can also use the data from wearable devices to improve the quality of care. Some other benefits of mHealth include – 

  • Faster access to physicians.
  • Improved medication adherence.
  • Remote patient monitoring.
  • Increased medication reconciliation accuracy.
  • Improved coordination between healthcare providers and patients.

Conclusion

It’s quite clear that COVID-19 has significantly impacted patient behaviour. There has been a growing preference for telehealth and mHealth apps. But all of this has also compelled healthcare organizations to put in more effort in adapting to these behavioural changes. Healthcare providers are opting to rely more on new technologies to continue delivering patient care. A more affordable standard of high-quality care is in the works for India’s digital health future.

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