Friday, 14 November, 2008

The Inside Story- e-Health


The scale of e-health services in India has been very small so far, mostly limited to health awareness through portals, telemedicine and customer service using the internet. Even with such a small scale of operations, some significant changes are being made nationwide that will strengthen telemedicine initiatives and the healthcare industry as a whole. The most important initiative being, the standardization of exchange of health information between different entities within the healthcare sector.


The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology are jointly creating a national health information infrastructure, for easy capture and dissemination of health information. To support this infrastructure, necessary steps are also being taken in creating a legally safe environment that will protect the privacy and confidentiality of health information. Steps are also being taken to educate various stakeholders of the healthcare industry about the need for complying with health information standards The above-mentioned initiatives of the government are indirectly going to bolster the growth of cross border e-health services. Healthcare is becoming more and more regulated in developed countries such as the USA. Healthcare payers and providers are willing to outsource work easily to countries/companies that comply with health information standards and have a robust legal framework for privacy and security of health information.


In principle, telemedicine has bridged the urban rural divide by taking healthcare to interiors of India. There are more than 150 telemedicine initiatives today. On an average close to 6 (range of 2-10) telemedicine encounters take place per day in each of these centers. These figures are very low considering the dearth of healthcare services in the same areas of India. However, a start has been made. These figures are only going to increase, as the technology costs are falling regularly. Eg. Telecommunication costs have reduced by 3 times since the last two years.


Financing


In the domestic arena, e-health services are being offered by existing healthcare provider organizations such as hospitals. They have e-enabled their services to offer either better customer service or increase their access to rural areas. The average investment for a telemedicine center has been close to 25 lakhs. Healthcare portals and corporate websites do not cost more than 5 lakhs to develop.

In the international e-health services arena, the funds invested are much larger. There are currently close to 50 stable healthcare service providers, of which close to 30 offer medical transcription while the remainder offers medical billing, coding and health insurance services. Considering an average investment of Rs. 2 crores4 for a medical transcription company and an average of Rs. 5 crores for other healthcare services providers, an amount of 160 crores has been invested in companies that offer cross border e-health services. Domestic e-health services have not resulted in any savings of foreign currencies by reducing the need of domestic patients to go abroad for treatment. The purchase of health services also hasn’t been affected very much. But there are enough indicators to indicate that it will increase. Healthcare concepts such as “preventive healthcare and disease management”, which are also offered via the internet, are catching up in the urban markets.

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