While we all wish that it hadn’t happened, one thing we cannot deny is that COVID helped boost telemedicine and telehealth in a big way.
The reason being it enables contactless and risk-free consultation between a doctor and a patient, much required during the current times.
Not just big hospitals, smaller clinics have taken the e-way too. A host of new apps croppedup while the older ones like Practo, Lybrate, DocOn, Docttocare, Doctalk, Portea, etc.increased their base.
Even Union Health Ministry’s telemedicine service eSanjeevani registered over 10 lakh consultations as of December 14, showing how digital services helped in delivery of health services and also boosted the digital health ecosystem.
Across India, over 6,000 Health and Wellness Centres use eSanjeevani OPDs. Seeing its acceptance among people, some states designed their own innovative applications around it - Kerala for inmates of Palakkad District Jail while Himachal for its old age homes.
E-clinics came as a boon for those living in Tier-II and III cities, who earlier had to visit bigger cities for treatment.
“Telemedicine is the most comfortable way to consult a doctor. I developed a health problem during lockdown, but thanks to DocOn I could consult an ace physician,” says Karol Bagh resident Sheetal Shukla. “Telemedicine and teleconsultation can alleviate the burden of our fragile healthcare system. While the government has issued guidelines detailing the norms and procedures doctors have to follow in practicing telemedicine through any mode of digital communication, we are also seeing equivalent efforts across the spectrum to mobilise large-scale digital innovations to ensure that healthcare services can be delivered remotely using computing devices and patient facing AI powered applications,” says Dr Shuchin Bajaj, Founder & Director, Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals.
Agreeing that telemedicine surely gained popularity during the pandemic, Dr Pankaj Kumar, general medicine pulmonologist, Apollo Spectra Delhi, Karol Bagh says, “It is a boon, especially now, as patients can connect with a doctor anytime, anywhere. There is no need to travel and no threat to privacy. You can communicate through emails, video call or a live chat, and you will get a valid legal prescription.”
Ayush Mishra, who entered the arena of e-clinics with Tattvan in 2017, says there was an almost 90 per cent increase in patients this year.“We began with one e-clinic in Gurugram.
Today, we have over 75 clinics across India, and there is a demand for opening more. Because of COVID, many have started using mobile apps for consultations,” says Mishra, adding that his area of focus is smaller cities and towns where people don’t have access to quality healthcare.
“The number of patients wanting a second medical opinion grew by over 100 per cent this year,” he adds.
Tattvanalso started another initiative this year - telemedicine operators - trained healthcare workers who go to villages for teleconsultations.
“Hospitals are increasingly opting for remote virtual technologies for patient care and medical conferences to expand healthcare services and facilities. They are interested in Virtual Clinics, Mobile Virtual Patient care and Virtual Medical Stores,”says Piyush Gupta, president of Kestone, a virtual event platform.
“When we started early this year, pharma was one sector that jumped in first - training MRs, launching new medicines, which helped everyone gain confidence that virtual will work for this industry,” says Gupta, adding that Kestone is working on opening virtual clinics for some of its clients.
The future is virtual
Telehealth will continue to grow in 2021, and offer greater access to all types of patients: the elderly, those with mental health needs, paediatric patients, among others.
As per a survey done by Sage Growth Partner and Black Book Market Research, as against 25 per cent of respondents who had used telehealth prior to the pandemic, 59 per cent said that they now prefer telehealth.
About 33 per cent said they can leave their current physician for a provider who offered telehealth access.
According to a Global Market Insights report, the telemedicine market would reach around $175.5B by 2026. Anmol Arora, CEO, Docvita, says that we might see AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) being incorporated in specific treatments.
“Artificial Intelligence is likely to rise now and improve chronic care management, care delivery and diagnostics,” he says. Agrees Gupta: “We did intensive research on this, and found that no one is going back to their pre-COVID lives for sure. People have realised there is no need to meet a doctor for smaller issues. So, basic consultation will happen online, and virtual clinics will flourish. Only for surgeries and related work, will people go to a hospital.” Medical conferences will also adopt virtual mode, says Gupta.
“Small deep-touch conferences will happen, but larger ones will stay virtual. Virtual mode reduces the cost (travelling, boarding and lodging) and pools in more knowledge transfer as one can get speakers from across the world.
Also, live surgeries can be shown to a larger audience,” he opines.
With social distancing and remote working becoming the new normal, doctors and hospitals have realised the need to adopt collaborative tools and cloud-based solutions to ensure continuity in providing quality healthcare.
It is a win-win situation for patients too: helps cut the travelling cost and associated bother, brings top-specialists in their reach, rules out the fear of contracting infection, and the cherry on top - reduced consultation charges!