World Health Day special feature
By Anand Parthasarathy
April 7 2023: The World Health Organisation (WHO) celebrates World Health Day every year on April 7 and draws attention to a specific health topic.
This year, when the Organization celebrates its 75th anniversary, it has chosen a more general theme: “Health For All”, highlighting the challenge of bridging the global divide that exists in matters of health: 30% of the global population is not able to access essential health services
One major concern has been the creeping commercialization of the health business: the Covid pandemic exposed this in poignant ways, with leading corporation loath to let go of the royalties and stiff pricing of their products, even in the face of a global catastrophe.
In Delhi yesterday, one small step was taken to address this challenge – and flip industry-centric healthcare to a new patient-centric regime. An International Patients’ Union was launched in the presence of many respected and service-minded medical practitioners
IPU will attempt to to address the challenges faced by patients across India related to accessibility, affordability, and quality of healthcare. It promises to connect patients with top doctors, policy-makers, regulators, industry leaders, and other fellow patients, providing them with a platform to put forth their opinions, contribute to policy formulation, and learn from each other how to better manage their disease conditions
Says the new organisation’s prime motivator, Dr Rajendra Pratap Gupta: “The patients, whom the healthcare sector is supposed to serve, have no say in the discourse on healthcare. The doctors are organized, and the industry is organized, but no one has ever thought of organizing the patients.
IPU aims to do just that. For starters it will initiate user ratings for care providers and start ‘patient-reported outcomes’ for improving the quality of care and making it value-based care.
It remains to be seen if the wider healthcare profession in India will welcome this initiative. The recent protests of sections of the medical profession in Rajasthan ( since called off) in response to a Right to Health bill points to a fundamental lack of trust in critical patient-doctor interfaces.
Technology, the tool?
But can technology play the part of leveler, empowering patients in ways never envisaged even a decade ago? Many health industry watchers so suggest – especially after the first two years of the Covid pandemic forced both doctor and patient to innovate, to find new ways of bridging the physical chasm created by a world in lockdown mode.
Leading data and analytics company Global Data, in a March 24 study suggests that OpenAI’s ChatGPT and its latest avatar, GPT-4, has the power to change healthcare. “ChatGPT can be used to assist doctors with bureaucratic tasks such as writing patient letters so doctors can spend more time on patient interaction…. AI integration into chatbots and virtual assistants can motivate and interact with patients, review a patient’s symptoms and recommend diagnostic advice and different options like virtual check-ins or face-to-face visits with a healthcare professional. This can reduce the workload for hospital staff”, suggests Tina Deng, Principal Medical Devices Analyst at GlobalData.
But she suggests, there may be dangers: “Usage of chatbots in patient care and medical research raises several ethical concerns. As massive patient data is fed into machine learning to improve the accuracy of chatbots, patient information is vulnerable.”
But regardless of the risks, AI-powered chatbots will be used widely in the healthcare industry concludes the study.Internet of Medical Things
Scott Lundstrom, Senior Industry Strategist for healthcare at OpenText, a leading information management company, points to an interesting global development whose waves are lapping Indian shores: the emergence of IoMT, the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) specifically for medical devices. “This is one of the fastest growing IoT sectors and is showing promising efforts at eliminating some of the strain currently facing our global health system, by providing connections and access for healthcare professionals and patients alike”, he says. The IoMT global opportunity is estimated to reach $176 million by 2026 according to a report from Fortune Business insights, with smart wearables and remote patient monitoring adding impetus to the market.
Clearly the burgeoning smart wearables (including health tracking) manufacturing business in India is in line with this global trend.
Virtual health challenges
A March 16 2023 research study by tech monitor, McKinsey entitled Virtual health for all: Closing the digital divide to expand access, highlights the disparities in access to broadband service—and, by extension, virtual-care access—as well as the opportunity for states to facilitate access to e-health for all. While based on data from the US, the writers list seven actions that could help state and local leaders unlock virtual health for underserved communities. This could be a useful template for India as well.
Some of these suggestions are already being actioned here. A few weeks ago, Siemens Healthineers, theFrankfurt (Germany)-based healthcare outreach of the Siemens group and the NASSCOM Centre of Excellence announced a strategic partnership to boost India’s healthcare through a accelerator programme. This will focus on six major domains: access to care, networked care & digitally enabled services, radiology imaging, In-vitro diagnostics, advanced image guided therapy to improve care in cardiology, neurology, oncology, and infectious diseases.
Needed: Fact checker for health information
The Health India Project (THIP) a health portal, conducted a survey with help from Cyber Media Research (CMR) on the critical need for health fact checking in India. Its findings, released this week are sobering:
-At least 3 out of every 5 Indians (62%) admitted to not knowing how to identify trustworthy health information on the web, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation and potential harm.
-59% of Indians also worry that they may fall prey to health misinformation and get hurt without realising it.
-36% feel that it is misinformation about alternative medicines that is most dangerous.
- Two out of five Indians were not aware of fact-checking helplines, which could provide them with reliable and accurate health information.
The message is stark: As more and more healthcare options are offered, patients and lay citizens may face an information (and misinformation) overload. Sifting fact from fake news may yet be the biggest challenge yet.
Stay well-informed – and healthy!
A fuller version of this feature appears in Swarajya magazine