Internet can boost it

Rural healthcare

Earlier, the three essentials for survival were food and water, shelter and clothing. Today, we have one more - the internet. Equipped with these four pieces of armour, one should be able to set forth and conquer all goals. At least, that’s the assumption. However, shouldn’t the first line of defence always be our health? How can you accomplish anything unless you are well enough to do so?

In cities, we take for granted our health and healthcare expertise available. Those in rural India are not as fortunate. But with initiatives like the BharatNet Project and the X Project to connect rural areas to the rest of the world via the internet, the potential to make a lasting difference in healthcare and how it is approached is immeasurable.

Imagine this: your local health and hygiene advocate, an ASHA worker, is on rounds. She comes to your house to do a follow-up with your younger brother who had caught flu, and sees your mother is going around completing the household chores — except that she doesn’t do it with her usual gusto. Upon enquiry, your mother dismisses any concern, saying that she’s just tired. Thankfully, the ASHA worker knows better. She takes out her internet-enabled tablet and checks to see whether your mother has a medical record on the National Rural Health Scheme (NRHS) database.

Your mother’s file is there — it just needs to be updated with a record of this visit. The ASHA worker starts checking off symptoms, and combined with her medical history, is able to get a list of possible issues your mother might have. She has the necessary training to decide on a course of action.

If her health deteriorates, finding the nearest community health centre or primary health centre is easier, they have her details on arrival, and the entire process is streamlined, reducing misdiagnosis and assisting in recording a comprehensive patient history.

We have a healthcare system in place. We have government medical colleges and hospitals in cities. We have Community Health Centres in major rural districts, which oversee major diseases and have beds to keep patients overnight. On a level below this, we have Primary Health Centres, which are the first points of contact for the village community and medical officers. Finally, for the most outlying areas, we have Subcentres, which are equipped to handle only births and non-communicable illnesses.

Apart from this collection of medical centres, we also have a plethora of NGOs, government schemes and initiatives with the sole purpose of providing better care to villagers, such as the NRHS and Mothers’ Absolute Affection (MAA), and even drives for the Rota Virus Vaccine, and Adult JE Vaccine, to name a few. Taking all this into account, why is it that the quality of care given to rural dwellers is so deplorable?

Harnessing initiatives

On the one hand, the country is gearing up for a digitisation, while something as basic as effective healthcare is still out of reach for millions. We want to talk about India as an emerging superpower, but no one is asking why the healthcare system is failing the majority of our population.

Today, we have a number of projects to connect every nook and corner of the country to the rest of the world. Harnessing the power of these initiatives will help shatter the ‘glass ceiling’ in healthcare. Consider the Centre of Excellence for IoT, Bengaluru, which was set up by the Government of India and Nasscom as a platform to develop skills and act as an innovation incubator and accelerator. Its purpose is to establish technologies that support government initiatives. Collaborating with them on projects that extend to the grassroots will fortify any initiative being taken.

In Andhra Pradesh, the X Project, a collaboration between Alphabet and an AP network provider, is a project that is using light to deliver high-speed high-capacity internet over long distances. A project like this would enable internet usage in rural areas, thus giving us a strong foundation to start working on using the internet to improve healthcare.

Intel is working with central and state governments on a project called ‘Ek Kadam Unnati Ki Aur’. Its objective is to identify the best framework to allow digitisation at grassroots level. It will offer a range of services, from issuing birth certificates to computer training programmes. In theory, this sounds ideal, but the question is, how do you educate people about the internet and how to use it when they are illiterate and unable to even sign their names?

The answer is to look at the stakeholders already in place and analyse whether they would be able to help fix the issue. In this instance, Intel is already setting up training programmes to understand digitisation, why not take it a step further and make the training more in-depth?

We have to look at healthcare and the internet in their totality. We have severe deficits in our healthcare as well as communication sectors. Correcting the chinks in one sector could allow us to use new systems to elevate the current structure in another sector. Think of it as a mosaic, but one that has not been made yet. What you have currently are a multitude of tiny coloured tiles. Alone, their application is limited. If collaboration between all stakeholders is fostered, we will have a mosaic of capabilities that could all be deployed towards better healthcare practices, elevated by a strong foundation based on the internet.

(Ghatak is Associate Professor, and Elias an MBA student at the Institute of Management, CHRIST (Deemed to be University) Bengaluru)

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