Healthcare is more than hardware – how tech entrepreneurs can immerse in the affordable healthcare opportunity

17th Feb 2017
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The rise of lifestyle-diseases along with increasing awareness about health is converging with the digital wave to create immense opportunity for healthcare customers, investors, startups and industry professionals in India. The upcoming Affordable Healthcare Conclave 2017 will feature a range of startups, corporates and academic experts exploring the Indian scenario.

The Affordable Healthcare Conclave will be held in Bengaluru at the IIM campus on February 18 (see agenda and registration details here). See also YourStorys’ earlier coverage of mental health challenges in India, and extensive profiles of health-tech startups.

Healthcare trends

“There is a marked increase in incidence of lifestyle-related diseases as compared to communicable or infectious diseases, leading to the burden of continuous care,” according to Guruprasad S, Senior General Manager for Engineering Healthcare at Robert Bosch Engineering and Business Solutions. There is a growing demand for quality healthcare beyond Tier-1 cities, and health insurance systems are emerging across the spectrum of care.

“The dual disease burden of chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases alongside communicable diseases like TB presents unique challenges, because the demands for addressing them are very different,” says Paul Belknap, Investment Manager at Villgro Innovations Foundation. Anti-microbial resistance is a growing threat in many disease areas, most alarmingly TB. Solutions that enable more informed prescriptions of these are called for.

“A key trend in healthcare is focus on innovation and technology in delivery of healthcare both in hospitals and as outpatient and home care. This includes e-health and m-health technology, and smart paperless hospitals,” according to Sudarshan Ballal, Chairman, Manipal Hospitals.

Watson cognitive computing has been deployed for the first time in the country for a scientific opinion on treatment of cancers. Robotic surgery, remote detection devices for hemodynamic monitoring, cardiac monitoring by ECG remotely transmitted to physicians, and ambulances with continuous transmission of data to the command centre are notable examples of technology-transformed healthcare.

Obstacles to affordable healthcare in India

A number of experts identify availability of talented and qualified people as a major healthcare challenge in India, at all levels from specialty doctors to nurses to lab technicians. “This problem exists in both urban and rural areas but is worse in rural areas. Many of the ‘qualified’ people are not sufficiently well trained to support the populations they serve,” observes Belknap of Villgro.

Inaccessibility of healthcare services across the geographical breadth of the country, high costs of services across the spectrum of economic bands, and low awareness on public health and wellness due to social and educational barriers are other challenges identified by Guruprasad of Bosch. “There is also no minimum guarantee of healthcare quality across the available options,” he observed.

The healthcare opportunity

Entrepreneurs and industry giants also envision a range of approaches to tackle these challenges. “Effective screening aids and tools as a first line of defense call for rapid and cost effective methods. There are also opportunities in point of care detection and diagnosis once possible suspects are identified - ones those are compact, handheld and easy to use,” says Guruprasad. Virtual assist and connecting solutions for regular management of detected conditions can compensate for the lack of trained specialists.

“One of the biggest opportunities is offering solutions to both private and government settings. These can be targeted at an area of the value chain such as diagnostics and include product and services,” says Belknap of Villgro. Examples here include Tricog, which includes an ECG machine and essentially real time interpretation. “This addresses both the capital cost and other issues associated with buying the equipment, along with the staffing issues associated with the expertise to read it,” explains Belknap.

Training of skilled healthcare workers is another big opportunity because of the massive human resources shortage in the sector. “There is also a huge need to offer continuing education and upskilling to existing trained workers,” Belknap adds.

Tips for entrepreneurs and industry

Experts featured at the conference offer a range of tips for startups and corporates in the healthcare sector. “Disrupt the status quo. Develop and protect IP. Persevere beyond prototypes to a certified and market launched product or solution - target societal impact and not valuations alone,” advises Guruprasad of Bosch.

To do this, entrepreneurs will need to partner, co-create and leverage the ecosystem. They need to go beyond engineering to unique business models. They should also understand that ‘affordable solution’ does not mean ‘low value proposition.’

“Spend time in a variety of healthcare settings to deeply understand the problem, and think beyond a single piece of hardware or software to what will need to change to really solve the problem,” advises Belknap of Villgro. Indeed, many healthcare startups tend to pitch their product features rather than the kinds of problems they are solving.

Government and policymakers are still slow to adopt new technologies and methods. “There should be a clearer, more transparent method for entrepreneurs to get access to pilots and turn those into full scale deployment,” Belknap urges.

A large investment is required to train and certify the number of healthcare professionals needed. “The government needs to take a leading role in scaling this and also tightening certification standards,” adds Belknap. There are numerous opportunities for industry as well to help entrepreneurs and innovative ideas gain scale, such as GE's Five.eight accelerator initiative in which Villgro is a partner.

More examples of industry ecosystem alignment in healthcare will be addressed at the Affordable Healthcare Conclave this weekend at IIM Bangalore; for more details on the conference sessions and startup panels, click here for information and registration.

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