Role of IT in the COVID-19 era

It is high time that digitalisation, cloud solutions, and analytics technologies are leveraged in healthcare setting, says Vimal Manchanda

A report ranked India amongst the leading nations in the adoption of digital technology, with 88% healthcare professionals using at least one form of digital health technology.
A report ranked India amongst the leading nations in the adoption of digital technology, with 88% healthcare professionals using at least one form of digital health technology.

Around two decades have passed since Institute of Medicine (IOM) called for development of IT infrastructure in the United States in 2001 stating it would have tremendous potential to improve safety, efficacy and quality of healthcare.   To improve healthcare delivery, the study suggested to leverage IT for five areas which included access to medical knowledge base, computer-aided decision support systems, collection and sharing of critical information, error reduction, and enhanced patient and clinician communication.

With Cloud solutions providing high data storage and computing potential, hospitals can benefit from reduced costs, promotes interoperability and  strengthen data protection and ownership.

Rethinking healthcare delivery in the COVID era

Fast forward to 2020, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has severely compromised the existing healthcare delivery system. The pandemic poses several challenges in the regular patient care even in the urban cities, where healthcare delivery was generally deemed to be good.

The largely asymptomatic disease with its long incubation period makes identifying a virus carrier difficult. This essentially makes everyone vulnerable to infection, even the non-COVID healthcare workers who are treating patients for other diseases. Furthermore, to prevent healthcare facilities from being a contamination zone, it has become important to reduce the footfall of patients especially in the OPD care.  Suddenly, the patient care protocols have become inadequate, there are operational challenges at multiple levels, patient to staff points-of-contact have to assessed, and there is an urgent need to find the right solutions for contactless healthcare delivery.

Leveraging the role of IT to support

The lockdown phase has seen a paradigm shift with the industry falling back on healthcare IT as a solution to these challenges. As the industry gears-up to face the new normal, the adoption of IT has become one of the priority areas.

In recent past, the IT world has advanced tremendously.  Industry 4.0 ushered in the age of automation and data exchange. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data, internet of things (IoT), and robotics are today’s reality. While medical technology has seen immense advancements, the Indian healthcare industry has been a late IT adopter, not having utilised IT advancements to the optimum for patient care, yet.

Fortunately, India does not have to start on ground zero. We have a significant health IT advantage than many other developing nations and a huge potential to leverage IT solutions to redefine healthcare delivery. In fact, the recent 'Future Health Index 2019 report' ranked India amongst the leading nations in the adoption of digital technology, with 88% healthcare professionals using at least one form of a digital health technology.

Mr. Vimal Manchanda

Leveraging IT solutions to redefine healthcare ecosystem

IT solutions can be leveraged through the following ways and be a part of long-term strategy to redefine healthcare delivery.

Contactless healthcare delivery: With healthcare providers being at huge risks, the industry is looking towards contactless healthcare delivery. It is not vital to identify numerous points in the patient care routine which can be automated using various IT interventions, negating the need of physical interaction at all those critical points. The industry has to invest in digital innovation and explore the use of robots for delivering routine care of food and medicine to patients.

Leverage virtual care and data technologies: Telemedicine and electronic medical record (EMR) or electronic health record (EHR) need to be adopted across the industry to deliver patient care at home or remote settings. As a part of contactless healthcare delivery, virtual healthcare has to be made mainstream, especially in the population dense urban spaces. Physical evaluation would have to be now prescribed to control patient footfall in health facilities.

Transitioning to new age IT systems: It is high time that digitalisation, cloud solutions, and analytics technologies are leveraged in healthcare setting. Digitally connected processes enable paperless operations injecting efficiencies and error proofing in the value chain.

With Cloud solutions providing high data storage and computing potential, hospitals can benefit from reduced costs, promote interoperability, strengthen data protection and ownership, foster telemedicine systems, and benefit key stakeholders from high-powered analytics.

Standardisation and integration: With the increase in the adoption of IT,  it is more likely that customised solutions will take precedence amongst various industry players. This will affect parity in healthcare delivery. Therefore, a strong and detailed nationwide framework is required to standardise protocols to facilitate exchange and maintenance of data, patient transfers, strengthen connectivity and linkages between stakeholders, and many other benefits. For instance, a standardised and integrated EMR or EHR system across the country will be priceless as a pool of basic patient health records collected over time would form a goldmine of information and insights that can guide healthcare deliver and allied services at various levels.

Recognise IT as an enabler and not an expense   

The COVID era calls for perception change of viewing IT as an enabler to healthcare delivery. In the past, the resistance to change and perception of it being an expense have prevented India from leveraging these technologies.

IT solutions can be leveraged to establish highly secure and effective patient care delivery models at reduced cost. It is true that like all technologies in other sectors, healthcare IT would need time, skill, and resource investment which would reap rich dividends in the long run.

Vimal Manchanda is COO with Samvardhana Motherson Health Solution Limited (SMHS).