Healthcare is India’s great challenge and mobile apps powered by artificial intelligence (AI) may be its best answer.
For India’s rural population, accessing healthcare is a long and expensive journey which often begins all too late.
Although Apollo Hospitals, India’s largest hospital chain, has recently announced partnerships with Microsoft and IBM to develop AI solutions for detecting heart disease and cancer, most of the 1.3 billion people living in India will struggle to access these exciting new treatments.
Around 70% of the country’s geography is not covered by doctors, and so those needing healthcare must commute into the bigger cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.
Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) in Mumbai, one of the leading cancer hospitals in India, found that around 14.5 thousand of their patients had undertaken gruelling journeys of over 1,800 km on average to access treatment for cancer.
They had travelled from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal to TMH, located in the state of Maharashtra – to drive from West Bengal to TMH would take around 40 hours.
This odyssey will rack up costs for subsistence, accommodation and loss of earnings – costs which push an additional 39 million Indians back into poverty every year .
Tragically, most Indian cancer sufferers only seek treatment when their disease has reached an advanced stage.
Solving lack of access is a mammoth burden
World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows there are about 949,000 new cancer cases in India per year accounting for more than 634,000 deaths annually.
Dr Vijay Raaghavan, Associate Director of PwC Healthcare’s south India practice, said: “It is very critical for us to get to the challenge of solving lack of access first before solving cost and quality in a country like India.”
“With every passing day, the burden of lack of access is piling up into a box full of challenges, which when left unaddressed would end up becoming a mammoth burden to even imagine, forget solving.”
Overall India has 0.76 doctors and 2.09 nurses per 1,000 population (as compared to WHO recommendations of 1 doctor and 2.5 nurses per 1,000 population respectively).
Barely 2,000 Indian pathologists are experienced in oncology, treating tumours.
The National Institution for Transforming India, Aayog, a government think tank, released a paper in June, National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, in which they said: “Machine learning solutions aimed at assisting a general pathologist in making quality diagnosis can very well plug this gap in providing essential healthcare.”
The potential for mobile apps to plug the gap
But conceivably clinicians of any kind may not be required to help solve the problem of early diagnosis, because almost all Indians regardless of wealth have access to another resource which may become just as powerful – mobile phones and mobile apps.
India has almost as many smartphone users (300 million) as the United States has people, and their number could grow by 50% in the next few years.
Not only that but mobile data in India has plummeted in cost. You can now purchase 2GB of data in a month for 98 rupees, around $1.40, which is enough to send or receive about 2000 emails and browse the internet for 40 hours.
With the wealth of AI-powered diagnostic tools now being developed for smartphone users, it is conceivable that the answer to India’s cancer woes – early detection – will be downloadable as mobile apps in the next few years.
Using such an app to generate a treatment plan, instead of planning a 40-hour drive, would be a true revolution in healthcare.
By Charlie Moloney
 ‘Healthcare and equity in India’, The Lancet, Series: India: Towards Universal Health Coverage, Volume 377, Issue 9764, P 505 -515, February 05, 2011
MedTech startups deploying AI solutions
Aindra: A Bangalore-based software company founded in 2012, have developed a point-of-care detection system for Cervical Cancer which is quick, affordable and accessible, enabling women to walk-in to their nearest primary health center, get screened and walk out with their reports.
NIRAMAI: A small startup with only 15 employees founded in 2016, have created a portable breast cancer screening tool which is painless and radiation-free, as they just measure temperature levels via thermal imaging. Their current results have shown accuracy levels in “the upper 90’s” and testing is ongoing.
BJP = Bharatiya Janata Party the ruling political party in India. It is currently led by Narendra Modi, a former Chaiwallah (tea salesperson), with policies meant to promote both economic growth and Hindu nationalism.
Lok Sabha = The lower house of India’s parliamentary system, roughly equivalent to the UK’s House of Commons
Raj Sabha = The upper house of India’s parliamentary system, roughly equivalent to the UK’s House of Lords
Crore: A unit in the Indian numbering system equivalent to ten million (1 crore = 10,000,000)
Lakh: A unit in the Indian numbering system equivalent to one hundred thousand (1 lakh = 100,000)
Famous Indians working in AI
Satya Nadella – CEO, Microsoft
Nadella, of Hyderabad, succeeded Steve Banner in 2014 and is credited with bringing a growth-mindset culture to Microsoft.
He is a lifelong cricket fanatic and says Microsoft are building a cricket oval for employees.
Nadella calls AI “the ultimate breakthrough”.
Sangita Reddy – Joint Managing Director, Apollo Hospitals
Reddy is leading Apollo’s collaborations with Microsoft in detecting cardiac disease early.
She says: “AI will enable a young MBBS doctor to be able to practice at the efficacy and efficiency level of a doctor with 20 years of experience.”
Photo Credit: Foundation for the National Institute of Health
Mohit Joshi – President, Infosys
Joshi made his mark at Infosys by leading a study which found that 51% of Healthcare & Life Sciences companies are experiencing disruption from AI.
He was named as a Young Global Leader by Davos, the World Economic Forum.
Original article in AIMed Magazine issue 04, available here.