It’s Monday morning, and mobile healthcare is one of the hot topics at Mobile World Congress. On the podium, Dr. K. Ganapathy from India’s Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation spoke passionately about the need for true communication at the heart of all healthcare – and for mobile healthcare to be driven by the needs of patients and Doctors, and not by whatever the technologists are currently working on.
K. Ganapathy is primarily a Doctor. As he says “I am not a technologist, I am not a CEO from a mobile company. I am an end user.” His interest is in making sure that telemedicine is providing quality healthcare to as many people as possible.
He claims that education and health are the true basic needs of human beings – and that with 725 million mobile phones in India, there is no better medium to use for telemedicine than mobile phones. India is a country in love with mobile technology. Even people who are completely illiterate, who don’t know how to sign their own names, can use their mobile phones fluently.
Unfortunately, Dr. Ganapathy claims that the most conspicuous thing about mHealth is it’s absence. 45 million urban indians use mBanking already – even the Prime Minister announced that mobile is growing massively, being driven by value-added services.
So why isn’t healthcare one of those services?
The problem is in revenue. There have been a huge number of succesful pilots of mHealth technology in India – but “pilot” is becoming something of a dirty word. mHealth is technically feasible, but to scale it up it needs to be financially viable. The people who need it the most can afford it to least. 91% of the population have NO health insurance. The real challenge is that Indian mHealth can’t pay all the stakeholders. So it needs to be heavily subsidised. The solution that K. Ganapathy sees is massive scale. If 50 million people are on the system, then it can make profit. Unfortunately, investors want to see ROI immediately and that’s just not going to happen. Apollo Telemedicine is looking for someone who is willing to wait a few years to see their investment returned.
Mobile phones will be hospitals in your pocket
There is a major rural/urban healthcare divide in India. People outside of the cities often cannot access Doctors – but they almost all have mobile phones. Trials have proven that the technology works (a 2007 trial showed amazing results even on 2G networks), but mHealth needs to be need driven, not technology driven. For example, power usage needs to be addressed – there are large parts of rural India where there isn’t 24 hour electrical supply!
One of the factors that K. Ganapathy raised is “WIIFM” – What’s In It For Me? Doctors look at this “mobile hospital” idea as a threat to them. The system needs to be created with both patients and Doctors at the centre. Apollo Telemedicine is looking at self-triage, customised healtchare applications, 3G videoconfernecing for clinical examination of a patient. All of these allow Doctors to reach much larger numbers of patients, without getting rid of the need for the Doctor.