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AI brings hope in solving India’s Healthcare Challenges

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By Mario Romao and Dr. Ramanathan Sethuraman

Artificial Intelligence continues to make headlines all over the World, with nations launching AI Strategies, devising policies to bring AI benefits to the economy. Invariably, these strategies highlight the potential of AI to meet the challenges that healthcare systems face to ensure timely, high quality access to care for their citizens. And in these efforts, India is no exception.

A large part (66% as of 2017) of the population that lives in rural areas is cared for by only 33% of the doctors practicing in India. And whilst rural India has 84% of the government hospitals, these account just for 39% of all hospital beds. As private services are centered on urban areas, it is important for the government to increase services in rural government hospitals to provide healthcare to the rising population. Moreover, the growing prevalence of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) demands advanced screening and diagnostics, which is only available in tertiary facilities.

Figure 1 - Economic Burden of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in India, 2012-2030

Faced with this scenario, and aligned with India’s National Strategy on Artificial Intelligence, Intel India is addressing this incredible challenge heads on. One of the key challenges is that the key role of primary health centers, designed to work as the point of entry for all patients to get screened and referred to secondary hospitals in towns and subsequently to tertiary hospitals in cities, is being eroded given the lack of effective healthcare services provided by primary healthcare centers. This causes delays in diagnosis and increased patient footfall in secondary and tertiary hospitals.

Figure 2 Public Health Facility and Patient Footfall

Artificial Intelligence can strengthen the role of primary healthcare centers by assisting in screening, diagnosis and treatment of NCDs, accounting for 63% of all deaths (e.g. currently India represents 49% of the world’s diabetes burden). Only by increasing the ability to prevent and early diagnose disease can India improve the quality of life of citizens and reduce overall economic burden.

One of the approaches Intel is exploring with healthcare ecosystem players in India is to leverage the power of AI at the edge, i.e. where AI solutions are integrated with mobile devices and on-premises medical equipment in hospitals and rural healthcare centers. Deployed in this way, AI would circumvent the shortfall of specialist doctors in rural areas and facilitate screening and early diagnosis of disease.

Artificial Intelligence is a key tool available to India. Sustained commitment by the government, investment and collaboration across all relevant stakeholders will be determining factors to successfully address such large-scale health challenge.