New Delhi: When it was introduced two decades ago, telemedicine was hailed as a transformative force in rural healthcare. It hasn’t quite worked that way.
Absence of infrastructure, Internet connectivity and lack of sufficient medical personnel have impeded the progress of telemedicine, which involves the use of telecom and information technology to provide healthcare from a distance.
The ministry of health and family welfare, which introduced telemedicine in 1996, is still struggling to bring the concept to the countryside and even district-level healthcare centres.
Take for instance the challenge posed by lack of sufficient Internet speed.
“The minimum Internet speed required for consultation with a patient through a computer is 2 Mbps, which is not available in most of the villages,” said Jitendra Arora, director (eHealth), ministry of health and family welfare.
“Because of this, the video quality turns out to be bad when doctors try to connect with patients and the healthcare staff in the villages. Telemedicine is difficult to implement in such a scenario.”
With 159 Internet service providers in India, broadband penetration in the country is less than 2%, according to the government.
The health ministry envisaged that all health facilities would be connected to broadband, enabling tele-consultation and tele follow-up from primary health centres, to community health centres, sub-divisional hospitals, district hospitals, medical colleges and to super-specialty hospitals. However, it hasn’t gone according to plan.
The ministry also planned mobile vans with diagnostic peripherals and a medical team visiting hard-to-reach areas to provide healthcare. Expert tele-consultation was supposed to take place using a satellite dish or WiFi technology. “Rural areas don’t have proper healthcare infrastructure to start many things. We have a long way to go,” said Arora. “Private sector can help start telemedicine services in rural areas. Doctors in government hospitals are already very busy in handling loads of patients…they get little time to connect with patients in rural areas and follow them up.”
The health ministry is proposing the inclusion of telemedicine in the education curriculum of doctors.
“We will have to create an environment so that telemedicine is adopted and implemented properly, so that it can help the population living in rural areas. The doctors should be imparted training so they can further deliver their services in a professional manner,” said Arora.
“Telemedicine can transform the healthcare in rural India and turn out to be economical in terms of treatment but we need to invest in technology. When rural population has to go the bigger hospitals in cities, they lose on wages and travel. All this money can be saved if a doctor in a bigger centre is following up on the patient,” he added.