Despite the growth of medical tourism in India, remote villages in the country are still lacking chemist shops, let alone a clinic. For the wider masses, healthcare services remain prohibitively expensive.
Although the government has set up over 22,000 primary healthcare centers in villages across India, these often remain just structures as doctors, radiographers, pathologists, etc, are hard to find. The good doctors prefer to work in the larger cities where there are better facilities and remunerative jobs.
"The primary healthcare centers are not economically viable," said Vijay Simha, CEO of OneBreath, a startup developing a low-cost, portable ventilator for launch in 2013. He was speaking at a panel discussion at the TiEcon Delhi 2012 conference held in New Delhi over the weekend.
According to Simha, several hospitals in India have ventilators that do not function, and most cannot even afford a ventilator. This has led to higher mortality rate.
"India has the opportunity to leapfrog all models of healthcare," said Ajay Bakshi, CEO of Max Healthcare.
"Don't just look at what Max Healthcare, GE, Philips, etc, are doing and say this is what Indian healthcare is going to be. It's an open field and we need to get innovative," added Bakshi, whose company runs a leading chain of hospitals in India.
He pointed to some examples of how innovative approaches were being adopted by entrepreneurs to reach out to communities across India, and how high-end healthcare players were making top-of-the-line healthcare more affordable.
For instance, Philips Healthcare now has an innovation campus in Bangalore that is developing products for use in small towns and cities.
In another example, social enterprises such HealthPoint Services India (HSI) are taking quality healthcare to rural India. The organization owns E Health Points (EHP), which provides rural villages with clean drinking water, medicines, diagnostic tools, and advanced telemedical services--that bring a doctor and modern, evidence-based healthcare to their community.
Improving primary healthcare
EHP has entered into a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement with the Punjab state government to have tertiary care facilities in cardiac care, oncology, neurology and orthopedics and trauma.
"We run primary healthcare centers in villages in Punjab that have a population of 4,000 to 10,000 people," said Amit Jain, CEO of EHP. At EHP, most of the diagnostics tests are provided at high discounts compared to those at the nearest towns and cities.
Similarly Eye-Q Super-specialty Eye Hospitals is providing eye care at affordable rates in small towns and cities across north India.
"We do cataract surgeries at INR 3,000 (US$57.26) and are a profitable company," said Rajat Goel, co-founding CEO and managing director at Eye-Q Super-specialty Eye Hospitals. In the city, a cataract surgery can cost anywhere between INR 20,000 and INR 30,000 (US$381.75 and US$572.62). His company sees between 500,000 to 600,000 patients a year.
Cheaper medical equipment
Several medical equipment manufacturers are also working at more affordable price points for smaller towns and villages.
According to Rekha Ranganathan, senior director and head of strategy at Philips Healthcare, affordability means different things to different consumers.
"It has one meaning for the premium consumer, and another for rural customers. So we have to constantly evaluate the price point which our consumers are able to [pay]," she said.
There is also a market opportunity for products like OneBreath, which was designed for emergency situations and for patient care in resource-poor countries. It is particularly useful for India, where regular power supply is a challenge, the company said.
However, India needs the right regulations to encourage large-scale adoption of telemedicine. In fact, India does not even have a medical device safety bill.
"In India, regulations do not exist. Doctors get arrested for incubators that catch fire," Simha noted.
The country also needs a regulatory authority for medical devices, while there is no regulation pertaining to telemedicine consultation. "Lack of regulation in this area is getting in the way of large-scale adoption of telemedicine," Bakshi said.
Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.