India is home to over one billion people, 68% of whom live in the country’s hinterlands with little or no access to primary medical care services. For those who do have access to health care, wait times can be tediously long, and individuals who often need urgent medical attention are left stranded.
The country faces a dearth of experienced medical care professionals in its rural quarters. According to a report by KPMG and the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India, 80 per cent of the country’s doctors live and work in urban India, serving only about 28% of the Indian populace.
Telemedicine offers to solve exactly this problem by making quality healthcare available even in the most remote belts of India.
Telemedicine is a concept that utilises technology to diagnose, treat and inform patients located in distant areas with no or minimal access to medical care. It may also be used to facilitate research for the education of health care providers and patients. Assisted by strong tech infrastructure, telemedicine permits one-way or two-way real-time interactive communication between the patient at the distant site and the physician or medical specialist at the medical centre. It could also take the form of telephone calls where the patient seeks the doctor’s advice on non-emergency medical problems.
To begin with, telemedicine requires a hub, a site from where the medical specialist will deliver their services through a telecommunications system. Such hubs are generally set up at urban medical centres.
On the other end of the line, the patient is accompanied by a mediator who assists in the communication process. The site is loaded with diagnostic tools, such as stethoscopes, that the mediator uses under the guidance of the medical specialist.
Over time, the equipment used in telemedicine has improved considerably and has become much simpler to operate. Today, telemedicine employs a computer and an audio-visual system, backed by a steady internet connection that can facilitate immediate interaction between both locations. In more sophisticated setups, it can also include mobile medical devices such as an ECG device or a digital stethoscope.
Telemedicine can be used in emergency and non-emergency medical situations. In non-emergency cases, a system known as ‘store and forward’ (SAF) is used, where an image is taken using a digital camera, is ‘stored’ at the patient’s end and is then sent to the medical specialist along with the patient’s medical information. A diagnosis is generally made within the next 24-48 hours and sent back.
The second type of system allows for immediate two-way interaction between the patient and the doctor. Such face to face interaction has proved to be helpful across multiple medical specialities including psychiatry, rehabilitation, cardiology, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, neurology, and internal medicine.
Telemedicine offers numerous benefits and is particularly helpful in rural areas that face a shortage of basic healthcare and specialty care providers. Following are a few benefits of telemedicine:
It is important to remember that telemedicine is not meant to replace the traditional system of medical delivery but simply complement it. As a method of healthcare delivery, telemedicine has proved very promising in India.