In early 2020, as the Indian government prepared to take care of COVID-19 patients, teleconsultations were one of the key technologies being considered.
By M Neelam Kachhap
COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of virtual communication in all facets of our lives and telemedicine with growing numbers of users is here to stay. In early 2020, as the Indian government prepared to take care of COVID-19 patients, teleconsultations were one of the key technologies being considered. People quarantined at home could call doctors and receive necessary medical assistance. This has proven to be a fairly effective method of bringing doctors and medical care closer to the people, even during difficult times.
Indeed, telemedicine has taken center stage over the past two years due to the new standard of travel restrictions and the inaccessibility of physical contact. Raman Singh, 41, had a tingling sensation in his right hand in the afternoon after a game of cricket with his son in November 2020 during the first phase of the pandemic. He ignored her. By late evening he started to experience chest pain, but it was already late and finding a doctor seemed impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions. The problem was compounded by its location. At the time, he was living on the outskirts of Faridabad. Fortunately, he consulted a local doctor over the phone, who in turn arranged for a consultation with an expert cardiologist. Within 30 minutes, an ambulance was organized and Singh was on his way to the hospital in a nearby town. He had suffered a heart attack. Quick access to medical care saved his life. Telemedicine has made this possible.
Telemedicine continues to be a useful tool for patients who need constant care and follow-up, such as people with diabetes. A Bangalore-based new age telemedicine company has started a telemedicine program for people with diabetes who needed wound care during the pandemic. Many people with diabetes have sores or ulcers that take longer to heal and can lead to infections. A photo of the wound or ulcer was uploaded to the app and a healthcare provider could explain to the person how to clean and care for the wound. The company would also send a trained nurse to treat the infection if the wound did not heal. Medicines and other wound care items, such as antiseptics and gauges, were also delivered to homes by the company. Then he would connect with the patient’s local doctor or diabetologist to provide further treatment. This convenience is highly appreciated by the patient and his relatives as well as by the doctor, who can better care for his patient.
Routine telemedicine diagnostic checks and consultations have helped many people throughout the pandemic. Today, teleconsultations have become popular even in rural areas of India. An initiative of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the national telemedicine service, eSanjeevani, has been caring for around 90,000 patients per day across the country since its launch in April 2020.
While government push for telemedicine has certainly helped patients, a swarm of private telemedicine providers has also swept the country in the past two years. From start-ups to established brands like Tatas, all have frayed in the telemedicine market. Regular hospitals have also strengthened their telemedicine services. This has helped the patient who has more options to choose which platform and provider they want to go to.
Physicians also find this medium useful in reaching not only patients, but also their peers. A cardiology Whatsapp group set up in Mangalore by a seasoned cardiologist has been so successful that a number of similar groups have been formed across India. When a doctor sees a patient with a heart problem, they may do a test called an EKG (electrocardiogram) to check if the heart is working properly. However, some ECG results can only be read by experienced cardiologists. The doctor uploads the ECG to the WhatsApp group and within minutes gets expert advice on treatment options for the patient. This helps the doctor save lives even without physical access to specialist doctors.
Telemedicine enables remote assessment, diagnosis and treatment of patients of all age groups. Consider the anxiety of a new mother whose toddler has a fever. Telemedicine provides access to primary health care and a specialist doctor at critical times. In addition, by combining telemedicine with online pharmacy and home diagnostic services, the problem of access to care is solved.
Not to mention the fact that telemedicine saves time and lowers the cost of care for providers and seekers alike. For someone with a diabetic foot ulcer in a remote location, the cost of travel as well as lost wages add to the cost of care. This is the reason why people neglect or delay timely medical care, resulting in more serious medical illness. Telemedicine helps solve this problem.
For people with other medical conditions such as cancer or kidney disease, constant monitoring and management of everyday problems is necessary. Telemedicine has become a useful tool for these people and their families. Information about nutritional intake, side effects of drugs, or drug dose adjustment can all be done without going to the doctor’s clinic.
The other specialties most sought after on telemedicine platforms are primary health care, gynecology, pediatrics, dermatology, ENT and sexology. The recent launch of the Pradhan Mantri Digital Health Mission (PM-DHM) will further strengthen telemedicine in India. With the availability of online patient records and a unique health identifier, access to telemedicine will be streamlined.
However, information sharing and data privacy remain hurdles that telemedicine providers struggle to navigate. Such infrastructures that make data not only accessible but also secure are the need of the moment. Just like the banking and financial sector which has been revolutionized with the digital movement, healthcare through telemedicine can also be truly democratized.
(The author is a healthcare expert, influencer and editor at Indiamedtoday. Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)
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