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Why healthcare space is not disruptive enough?

Dr. Sushil Shah
Wednesday, May 24, 2017, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

Through the National Health Policy 2017 announced a few weeks ago, one thing that distinctly stood out is the government’s keen interest in improving healthcare at grass root levels and making quality healthcare accessible and affordable for all Indians. However, in reality, achieving this goal may be a bit more challenging than one may expect. One of the major perceived roadblocks is the slow pace of progressive disruption in the healthcare sector.

Recent technological advancements and increased awareness about preventive healthcare have set the stage for large-scale disruption in the industry. A number of consumers have started relying heavily on mobile applications and wearable health tracking devices to keep themselves fit. The reverence and trust that a hospital represented have diminished and consumers now feel safer and more comfortable getting their medical care at home. The fast paced nature of our lives has made consulting over the phone or the internet a more appealing option for visiting a doctor in person and ensuring that the doctor can actually examine you before diagnosis. All these changes in the recent past have changed the way healthcare used to operate in our country.

However, the traditional healthcare industry is still largely regulated by a fraternity of experienced yet old-fashioned doctors who are not the best receptors of change. A common man’s daily involvement with the overall healthcare industry is minimal, if not absent, hence limiting his true understanding of the complexities of the space. This gives doctors an additional chance to tighten the reigns and keep the sector largely unchanged. Additionally, healthcare as an industry is often perceived as glum and serious, stripped of all glamour or ‘cool factor’, which also makes it less attractive for vibrant tech entrepreneurs and other talents. Pure passion and the need to do something is what drives innovations in this industry.

Another challenge perhaps is that healthcare is constantly evolving and shifting its focus. We’ve gone from curative to preventive to risk assessments and lifestyle modifications. Consumers are baffled with the overload of information and want everything simultaneously. Instead of taking charge and guiding what people should be focused on, the leaders of the healthcare space are running about catering to every doubt and concern. This trend has given birth to a number of startups in the healthcare space, which is not exactly the best news because only a few of them have actually survived beyond a year. And even then, no matter how revolutionary their time-bound offerings are, they are barely making a dent in the way things are done. The industry as a whole lacks a strong vision, direction, and plan of action.  

When you take a closer look at the diagnostics industry in India, you will realize the situation is even worse. There are no rules and no governing body to overlook and quality control the services provided. Everybody is just doing their own thing. There is a marked difference in the quality provided by private players and public diagnostics labs. Lack of integration in between these sectors also hampers disruption and advancements.

Highly accurate and more focused technology has greatly facilitated the rapid growth of the healthcare sector, especially the diagnostics space, where every day we see a number of new tests cropping up. The analysis and prognosis of these tests are constantly developing too, becoming more precise. We can now pinpoint the exact cause of a disease through imaging, scanning, molecular biology testing and other diagnostic approaches, and even prepare for diseases which may develop in the future with the help of genetic testing. Larger laboratories, like Metropolis,  with sufficient resources are working on enhancing themselves into data centres. Pathology labs are the starting point of any medical treatment one may undergo and hence are an excellent source to gauge the country’s overall health trends. Now one may call this very progressive and disruptive, but the unfortunate truth is that this technology is very expensive and only a select few elite have access to these services. This means diagnostic centres cannot become legitimate and reliable data centres until they start catering to everyone.  

As diagnostics and preventive care take precedence over the curative approach to healthcare, pharmaceutical and healthcare companies will have to shift their focus in order to stay profitable and relevant. While some companies have already changed tactics, the real challenge has been in convincing the doctors to change their comfortable ways of working in order to implement the new technology smoothly. For example, 20 years ago, we started educating doctor to move from cholesterol testing to lipid profile testing which gave them a wider reference range and parameters. It wasn’t an easy move to make, convincing hundreds and thousands of doctors why the change would give them improved results. The struggle remains the same even today when we are trying to get them to move from lipid profiling to lipoprotein testing. This is yet another reason why disruption is such a slow moving process in India.

One of our greatest hope for disruption would be change and innovation from within because the entry barrier in the healthcare industry is much harder to push back. Not all new players are welcomed and most are immediately treated with suspicion. Also, to do something on a scale that can make a national impact, one needs a combination of large amounts of money, the most advanced technology, and a lot of time – things that most startups lack. But, if a brand or a doctor you have been visiting for years tells you something new, the consumers are more likely to believe and accept it. I believe the disruption we’ve been waiting for is already amongst us, in many different small ways, but its impact is very slow, almost unnoticeable. Change is possible, but only if we really want it and work towards it

The current environment is, in fact, one of the best times for the diagnostics industry to grow and earn the respect it has been lacking over the years. There is a huge potential for established laboratories with a widespread base (metros along with Tier II and III cities) to become centres of information and provide huge chunks of clinical data for analysis. These huge businesses can afford to invest time, talent and money into research work. These efforts can ultimately improve the healthcare delivery model and transform the pathology service of the future.

However, there are a number of global examples of how healthcare companies have tried to disrupt and have actually resulted in losing the trust of the patient, doctor and all stakeholders involved. Therefore disruptions in healthcare need to be planned meticulously and executed strategically, one step at a time. The bright side is that disruptions will result in the clear development of healthcare systems in three areas; enhancing the experience of care, bettering the health of populations, and reducing per capita costs of healthcare.

(Author is founder & chairman of Metropolis Healthcare Ltd)


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