How can we bridge the growing healthcare divide between advanced countries and emerging economies such as India? The National Summit on ICT in Healthcare, organized by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), was held on 4th June in New Delhi to address this very question. HITLAB was honored to help formulate the summit’s agenda and to participate in its discussions. The adoption of eHealth, which the World Health Organization (WHO) broadly defines as “the transfer of health resources and healthcare by electronic means,” will be a key component of success. 

The summit arose to ensure that parity in healthcare services for Indian citizens is advanced through technology. India is currently home to more than 920 million mobile phone subscribers, making it one of the fastest growing markets in the world. Healthcare information technology (IT) spending in India reached US $609.5 million in 2013, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22% in 2009. This extraordinary growth is marred by lack of policy framework around ICT (healthcare information and communications technologies) and mHealth (mobile health). The summit emphasized the need for a national level consensus on such a policy.

The national summit was attended by leading experts from government and industry. Discussions provided an opportunity for industry members to engage technology experts and senior government officials from both the Ministry of Health and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY). Some of the key recommendations that emerged from the deliberations are as follows: 

•    The delegates emphasized the need for a Telemedicine Act and an eHealth policy to provide clarity to industry and support rapid implementation. In this regard, the importance of national standards and state guidelines for improving the efficacy and adoption of ICT in healthcare was also discussed. 

•    During the past few years, India has been challenged by scaling up healthcare pilots in various domains. The experts talked about migrating from pilot projects to plan rollouts and how to better leverage technology, especially in reaching out to rural areas. A national seed-funding instrument for ICT-enabled healthcare pilot programs is currently unavailable. A proposal to set up such a fund was put forward. 

•    Involvement of local NGOs, communities, and organizations is crucial, as they play a key role in improving healthcare access in rural and tribal areas. To ensure better results, the selection of partners in service delivery is a key decision that would impact its efficacy. Therefore those NGOs or organizations with proven track records and easily replicated models might be chosen as collaborators. Villages should be brought closer to government for better service delivery; toward that end, the Telecom Infrastructure should be developed for better transmission of ICT applications and to realize the objectives of affordability, accessibility, and adoptability. 

•    Technology is needed to aid in the care delivery process and to improve efficacy of medical practitioners; these improvements will help doctors embrace technology. A few suggestions were given on how to encourage doctors to adopt technology. One: it should be the process defining the technology required and not the other way around. Two: compliance should probably be mandatory as voluntary adoption usually fails.

•    Some of the problems in India pertaining to healthcare such as low spending, shortage of health resources, and disparity of resource distribution would require much time to be addressed if done the traditional way. It is in this context that initiatives such as mHealth and eHealth might help realize the objective of universal health at a much faster rate. There was a consensus among the experts that government needs to embrace the private sector and consider it a partner in improving the health scenario of the country.

HITLAB was encouraged by delegates’ determination to address healthcare disparities in India with eHealth and mHealth solutions. While much remains to be done—formulating policies, funding pilot programs, forging partnerships, and more—technology should help streamline and advance needed improvements.