Byte-Sized Wellness: The Digital Prescription for India's Health

Byte-Sized Wellness: The Digital Prescription for India's Health

Dr. Vasudha Mishra





India, a land of contradictions, boasts cutting-edge hospitals yet struggles with uneven healthcare distribution. Millions, especially in rural areas, lack access to quality care. Can digital health and AI bridge this gap and revolutionize healthcare delivery? 

 In the dynamic digital landscape of the 21st century, our health journey is becoming increasingly intertwined with technology. The tech marvels of digital health and artificial intelligence (AI) have the potential to reshape India’s healthcare landscape - making it affordable, personalized, and downright effective. 

The Digital Knights: AI & Digital Health to the Rescue

Digital health leverages information and communication technologies to deliver health services and information. Think telemedicine, mobile health, electronic records – a whole digital arsenal.  

AI, on the other hand, enables machines to be able to learn, reason, and diagnose like a seasoned doctor. Think disease prediction, personalized treatment plans, and even robotic surgery!

Together, they can be a dream team, bringing innovation to healthcare.

Why India Needs This Digital Fairy Tale:

  • Beating the Shortage of Health Heroes:

India has only 0.7 doctors and 1.7 nurses per 1,000 people, which is far below the WHO recommendation of 4.45 per 1,000. The shortage is especially acute in rural areas, where 70% of the population lives, but only 40% of the doctors work (From National Sample Survey Office estimates). Digital health and AI can help bridge this gap, by enabling remote consultations, training, and supervision, and by augmenting the skills and efficiency of health workers. 

Sakhi is one such tool for enhancing maternal and child health services in rural India. With mSakhi, India’s frontline health heroes, the ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), now have a superhero sidekick in their pocket. This app transforms their smartphones into learning hubs, connecting them to supervisors, and making data collection about community health a breeze. ASHAs are using mSakhi to teach new parents essential skills like preventing infections, mastering breastfeeding, and spotting signs of serious illness. In case of urgent medical attention mSakhi connects moms and babies directly to the care they need. 

  • Breaking Down Barriers to Health:

Imagine you are struggling with a severe illness, but the doctor is miles away and you are running on a shoestring budget. In such a case, Swasth, a digital platform connects patients with doctors virtually, bringing healthcare right to their doorstep. 

  • Fighting the Big Bad Disease Wolf:

India carries a heavy burden of the world’s diseases. However, some tools can tag teams to catch diseases early, prevent them, and help manage them better. Niramai, a shining example, uses AI and thermal imaging to catch breast cancer early. It provides a painless and accessible method for early detection, especially in areas that lack advanced equipment or skilled technicians.

  • Closing the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots:

India’s healthcare system often reflects the harsh realities of inequality. High-quality healthcare often comes at a steep price, pushing many families into financial hardship.  But with digital health and AI solutions like telecommunication and remote consultations, we can rewrite the script and aim for healthcare equality. A future where rich or not, urban or rural, everyone gets top-notch personalized care. 

Digital Health and AI in Action in India:

  • Wysa - Your AI Sidekick for Mental Health: 

Bengaluru-based Wysa, a friendly mental health chatbot, speaks your language and uses evidence-based therapy techniques to help you tackle stress, anxiety, and related distress. It is like having a 24/7 mental health buddy.

  • An Eye-Catching Partnership: 

Google has joined forces with Aravind Eye Care to fight diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness in India. AI is used to detect this condition from retinal images. Thousands have been screened, with accuracy shooting over 90%. 

  • AI Keeping Hearts in Check: 

Can AI predict heart troubles before they strike? Apollo Hospitals, in collaboration with Microsoft, are attempting to do just that! They have screened over 200,000 hearts, spotting over 8,000 potential troublemakers and keeping them under close watch to ensure timely interventions when required. 

The Plot Twists and Challenges:

  • Digital Health Needs Good Data, Not Just Any Data:

Not every health facility in India has digital mojo. Many do not have adequate digital infrastructure such as computers, internet, and software, to collect and store data. Several facilities are drowned in incomplete and paper records. Many patients do not have unique identifiers to link their data across different sources. These challenges affect the reliability and validity of the data and limit the potential of digital health and AI.

  • Privacy Issues – Keeping Your Secrets Safe:

Many patients do not have control or consent over how their data - often sensitive and personal, is collected, used, and shared. Many health providers do not have adequate safeguards and protocols to protect the data from unauthorized access, misuse, or breach. 

  • Fairness & Accountability

The AI algorithms can reflect the prejudices of their creators or the data they are trained on, leading to unfair decisions for certain groups. That’s the scary side of AI in healthcare – bias

AI systems often involve many different players, making it hard to pinpoint who is accountable for its outcomes. This can be especially concerning when it comes to sensitive health data and decisions.

  • Beyond the Screen: The Human Touch Endures 

Technology should not replace human connection. Digital health should complement, not substitute, the irreplaceable role of doctors, nurses, and caregivers. Their expertise and empathy remain vital in diagnosis, treatment, and emotional support.

Overcoming obstacles like data security and infrastructure limitations is key to unlocking the full potential of digital health and AI in India to reach a healthier future that awaits on the other side.

Empowering the People: Owning Our Health Journey with Digital Tools

The digital revolution extends beyond just diagnostics and appointments. A wave of engaging educational tools is empowering patients and transforming health education.  Let us explore some of these trends:

  • Podcasts and Webinars: Knowledge on Demand

    With the surge in smartphone usage and internet accessibility, these audio-visual mediums offer a convenient way for people to learn about health and wellness on the go. 

    Podcasts, the modern version of the humble radio, have become increasingly popular in today’s world. Take, for example, the Banega Swasth India Podcast, which focuses on holistic health. It’s a treasure trove of wellness tips, delivered in easy-to-digest episodes. Then there’s PEP - Patient Education Podcast, offering healthcare information straight from doctors, packed with actionable tips for a healthier life.

    Additionally, webinars, which gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, have emerged as a powerful tool for interactive health education among a wide audience. 

    The convenience of podcasts and webinars allows listeners to tune in while commuting, working out, or even during their lunch breaks, making health education a seamless part of daily life. They bridge the gap between medical experts and non-experts, offering byte-sized wellness tips that are both accessible and engaging.

     Additionally, the rise of regional language podcasts in India is a testament to the country’s rich linguistic diversity and the growing demand for content in vernacular languages is an inclusive step in bringing health education to non-English speakers.

  • Making Health Rewarding: A Game Changer in Health Compliance

    If you get excited by the badges that you earn as you measure your daily step count or raise a virtual plant as you drink more water a day, you have already fallen for the charms of gamification.  

    Gamification adopts gameplay elements in the design. Rewards engage, motivate and encourage users to adopt healthier lifestyles. Users can be rewarded for taking medicines on time, reaching their daily meditation, exercise or fitness goals, and eating healthy. 

    This can be particularly useful while managing chronic disease conditions. mySugr is one such app that offers gamified solutions for diabetes management in an engaging fashion for both children and adults. 

    An Indian startup, FitPlay, has developed an app that rewards users with points for completing health quizzes and challenges. These points can be redeemed for discounts on health products, incentivizing learning and promoting better health practices.

    MediMinder, a mobile app, sends timely medication reminders to patients and provides educational content to reinforce the importance of following their healthcare provider’s instructions.

    Gamification allows people an opportunity to visualize themselves as the key player in their health journey, play a more proactive role and feel the autonomy of the decisions. It also helps one introspect on how their choices are impacting their health, make better choices and take care of themselves better. Additionally, it also gives them a chance to share their progress with other users or friends. These digital health tools, including mobile apps and online platforms, are playing a significant role in improving patient adherence to medical advice and treatment plans.

    Get ready to see gamification popping up everywhere in healthcare, making healthy choices more fun!

Navigating the path ahead:

The promise of digital health and AI in reframing India’s healthcare narrative is not just science fiction – it is happening right now! Millions are already feeling the benefits, from quicker diagnoses to personalized fitness plans. To ensure its success, transparency in AI and clear rules on data privacy, ethics and medical responsibility, are crucial. Collaboration among doctors, patients, policymakers, and tech experts is key to creating impactful solutions for a healthier future.

The future is here, and it’s digital

The future of healthcare is digital, but remember, digital health and AI are tools, not magic wands. Used responsibly and strategically, they can transform healthcare in India.

The rise of digital health literacy is not just a trend, but a necessity. With the advent of wearable technology, telemedicine, and health-related podcasts and webinars, the way we perceive health and wellness is changing. These tools go beyond information provision - they are putting you in the driver's seat of your health.

Let us invest in digital health literacy programs to empower patients and advocate for responsible AI development and clear data privacy regulations. As we navigate this digital health revolution, technology can be a catalyst for change, revamping healthcare delivery. After all, a healthier India is a happier, stronger India, and that is a story worth telling! 

Edited by Neha Kumari

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