NEW DELHI – India’s digital health market is poised to grow rapidly over the next five years propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to two new reports.

A white paper on technology-led transformation in Indian health care, released by the New Delhi-based Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India and Hyderabad-based market analysts Sathguru Management Consultants Pte. Ltd., said India’s “rapid migration to digital technologies” is marked less by a strategic plan or roadmap and more by the urgency of decision-making due to the pandemic. The paper was released last month during a five-day technology conference.

Another report, released by Ernst & Young (EY) Sept. 8, projects India’s telemedicine market will reach $5.5 billion during the 2020-2025 period, spurred by a rise in teleconsultations, telepathology, teleradiology and e-pharmacy due to the pandemic. These four sectors account for 95%, or $5.2 billion, of the total telemedicine market

Of the four sectors, the market for teleconsultations in India is expected to grow from $100 million to $700 million over the next five years, marking annual growth of 48%. This growth will be fueled in large part by regulatory guidelines on telemedicine released in March that call for increased spending on medical infrastructure. This spending could grow to $200 billion by 2024 and facilitate a shift to new consumer behavior, digital consumption and the country’s proliferating startup ecosystem.

E-pharmacies also are gaining traction and are expected to account for 10% to 12% of all sales of medicines in the next five years, up from the current 2% to 3% level. The growth likely will be driven by strong regulations, increased funding and the creation of a stronger digital infrastructure.

“This segment has seen major acquisitions aimed at improving reach, technology and customer experience,” said the EY report.

The EY projections are in line with findings and discussions during the conference.

“The unprecedented constraints in the times of COVID-19 have been a blessing in disguise – clinicians and healthcare delivery providers have now embraced digital technologies as a standard way of functioning,” said Rakesh Sarwal, additional secretary at the National Institution for Transforming India.

Digitization in health care has played a crucial role in driving access and affordability, improving accuracy and speed of diagnosis and reducing the dependency on limited resources, said Mahesh Kapri, managing director at GE BEL & GM – supply chain of GE Healthcare.

“Indian innovators are already making bio bots to automate retinal scanning, mammography and ECG interpretations,” said Kapri.

And Pushpa Vijayaraghavan, director of Sathguru, told BioWorld that a survey by her organization showed both clinicians and patients are “embracing teleconsultation in India during the current pandemic.”

Sathguru surveyed 40 clinicians and found that “a whopping 95% alluded to behavior change on technology adoption during COVID-19[,] and 80% of the respondents are embracing tele-consultation during these unprecedented times.”

The increased use of digital health was made easier, in part, by the release by India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of guidelines for telemedicine and teleconsultation and by the increased use of smartphones and wireless or mobile data. The advent of 5G, artificial intelligence and machine learning in India are also factors.

The guidelines provide clarity in “an erstwhile grey area of operation,” EY said. “They lay out a ‘comprehensive framework’ for key aspects, including the applications, means of communication, data privacy and confidentiality, medical ethics, process, document requirements, payments, drug list and technological platforms,” it says.

Until now, the segment had a regulatory obscurity that would have been a roadblock to adoption of teleconsultation platforms and apps by both consumers and stakeholders in the value chain, namely, the hospitals and physicians.

Krishnan Ganapathy, president of Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation in Chennai, said that a recent study of 3,200 patients from lower- and middle-income groups across urban, suburban and rural India showed that 77% would like to continue use teleconsultations.

“Creating awareness, promoting technology acceptance and behavioral modification is now being replaced with attention to nitty-gritty of operational details and developing sustainable business models,” Ganapathy said.

But there are challenges ahead, including hurdles in revenue generation, the need to customize digital health care, and the need to develop more cost-effective, user-friendly, efficient and secure telehealth systems.

“COVID-19 is providing us with tens of thousands of virtual non-COVID-19 patients. You cannot ask for a more opportune time to start telemedicine,” Ganapathy said.

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