Technology is helping Asian countries take quality healthcare to the remotest of areas. In India, where the government is rolling out a program to offer universal healthcare coverage, providers are leveraging digitalization to offer affordable medical care to the poorest members of society. Digitalization is also helping countries address the COVID-19 pandemic, while overcoming the shortfall of skilled resources in rural communities.
Elisabeth Staudinger, President, Asia Pacific, Siemens Healthineers and Vivek Kanade, Executive Director at Siemens Healthineers, India, talk to journalist Swati Prasad about the role digitalization is playing in improving the penetration of quality healthcare in Asia, particularly India.
"In general, due to the improvements in healthcare, people are living longer. This leads to a higher burden as people get older. The need for healthcare is growing much faster in Asia than in any other part of the world."
Swati Prasad: How important is the Asian market for global players in the healthcare industry?
Elisabeth Staudinger: A huge proportion of the global population lives in Asia. Any company engaging in healthcare is looking at Asia. Especially since we need to deal globally with the coronavirus crisis that started in China.
In general, due to the improvements in healthcare, people are living longer. This leads to a higher burden as people get older. The need for healthcare is growing much faster in Asia than in any other part of the world.
Companies have to be mindful of what it takes to serve the needs of patients in Asia, especially India and Southeast Asia. It has a lot to do with providing access to healthcare in different dimensions.
Swati Prasad: What are these different dimensions?
Elisabeth Staudinger: They emanate from the three challenges of access, skills, and affordability. The efforts of the industry have to be geared towards providing access to healthcare in the remotest of areas. And then, it’s also about skill levels, and enabling people with a lower level of education to make meaningful use of technology. And the third dimension is, of course, affordability.
If we look at the imaging and laboratory diagnostics business of Siemens Healthineers, 50 percent of the market is in Asia. China has the biggest share, followed by India. There is a lot of opportunity for market expansion in India.
Vivek Kanade: The Indian market is robust. Over the last five years, it has been growing at a compounded annual rate of 8 to 10 percent. The demand-supply gap in India is simply huge.
Swati Prasad: India is known as the software hub of the world. Does that help in driving innovation in healthcare?
Elisabeth Staudinger: Yes, of course. India has a large base of digital talent. We’ve built a team in India to engage with local entrepreneurs and start-ups to help drive innovation. We also collaborate closely with hospitals and universities in India.
Swati Prasad: How is digitalization helping Asian countries take healthcare to the poor?
Elisabeth Staudinger: Digitalization is an opportunity for countries to skip certain steps, which other countries may have taken, and progress faster. Today, we don’t necessarily need medical expertise onsite — machines can be operated remotely. Additionally, digitalization is helpful if you need to manage a crisis like the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, where distancing is one of the key factors in reducing the number of new infections.
There is a lot of opportunity for digitalization to improve the outcome and the effectiveness of healthcare at significantly lower costs. Digitalizing healthcare addresses reach as well as knowledge.
There are two ways to address affordability. One way is to use knowhow to reduce the cost of expensive solutions. The other way is to find high-tech solutions that give the best performance, and save money in other steps of the treatment process.
"COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst to drive up adoption of digitalization in the Indian healthcare industry. Telemedicine has suddenly become almost a mainstay."
Vivek Kanade: COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst to drive up adoption of digitalization in the Indian healthcare industry. Telemedicine has suddenly become almost a mainstay.
Two other areas where digitalization has made inroads is self-assessment of COVID-19 symptoms
through apps like Arogya Setu, which is a mobile app brought out by the Indian government, and in the development of solutions to support patients, monitor vitals, and provide alerts.
Elisabeth Staudinger: Digitalization has helped, but we are only at the start of the journey. We clearly see its utilization for COVID-19 patients by hospitals, private practitioners, and specialists. Home monitoring is another area where various digital solutions are now being developed.
How can emerging economies like India better prepare themselves for pandemics? Are there some lessons in digitalization that need to be learnt?
Elisabeth Staudinger: The pandemic has posed challenges for even the most advanced healthcare systems in the world. In countries like India, we need to tackle the core challenge first, which is to improve access to care. Digitalization helps in both improving access to care and in educating the population.
Vivek Kanade: We will have to develop innovative solutions. For example, the shortage of CT imaging, crucial for patients suffering from COVID-19, can be met through container-based CT imaging solutions developed for isolation facilities. All those CT scans can be managed remotely, using solutions like syngo Virtual Cockpit.
Swati Prasad: In India, the government has launched very ambitious programs, such
as Ayushman Bharat, to provide universal healthcare coverage. What is your view of these programs?
Elisabeth Staudinger: It’s a very meaningful ambition to provide healthcare to everybody and make sure that the less affluent get access to basic services.
Vivek Kanade: I agree. The sheer scale of access that Ayushman Bharat provides to people who otherwise could not afford a secondary or tertiary treatment is enormous.
Swati Prasad: What are the challenges in implementing this program?
Vivek Kanade: There are two critical challenges. The first is that of sustainability — Ayushman Bharat reimbursements are not enough to cover all costs incurred by the healthcare providers.
The second is the non-availability of skilled resources, particularly in rural areas. Healthcare providers have to overcome these challenges before the program starts paying off.
Swati Prasad: What are some of the ways of addressing these challenges?
Vivek Kanade: There are several ways in which partners, such as the medical device industry, can help healthcare providers. On the cost side, the medical device industry can offer technologies that are affordable. We are manufacturing a multidisciplinary mobile C-arm — Cios Fit — and entry-level CT scanners from SOMATOM go. platform that cater to the needs of the Indian market.
The second way of addressing these challenges is through financial structures, such as rentals and pay-per-use models.
The scarcity of skilled resources can be addressed by further leveraging digitalization. There are
multiple options, such as teleradiology, telemedicine, and a virtual operations center, that can address the lack of resources in remote areas.
We are also creating education programs where we train technicians, students, nurses and people from various domains.
About the Author
Swati Prasad is a freelance business journalist based in Delhi. She reports from India for several publications overseas and has worked as a correspondent and editor for The Economic Times, Business Standard, The Indian Express, and Business Today.