The Doctor Whose Telemedicine Vision Can Help India Flatten the Curve

The Doctor Whose Telemedicine Vision Can Help India Flatten the Curve

Lee H Schwamm, MD, director of the Center for TeleHealth at Massachusetts General Hospital and vice president of virtual care for Partners Healthcare writes in the Harvard Medical School blog that Telemedicine can help flatten the curve of infections and help to deploy medical staff and lifesaving equipment wisely while fighting the current crisis. He adds that telemedicine can help in keeping healthcare providers apart from patients and other providers – through ‘medical distancing.’

In India companies such as Practo, 1mg, Medlife, mFine and a few others are reporting a several-fold increase in online consultations for a flu or fever-related ailments. Since the beginning of March, 1mg said, it had seen a 300% increase in e-consultations for flu and fever-related ailments. These calls were coming from across the country – about 600 cities and towns – and not just from the large metros where penetration of telemedicine has been higher, says the Economic Times.

Even before Covid-19, one visionary pushed for Telemedicine in India – cardiologist Dr Devi Shetty. His Narayana Hrudayala Group in association with ISRO manages the world’s largest telemedicine programme which also caters to the PAN-African statellite network which connects over 56 African cities.

This potential was well summed up by Dr. Devi Shetty way back in 2006: “In terms of disease management, there is [a] 99% possibility that the person who is unwell does not require [an] operation. If you don't operate you don't need to touch the patient. And if you don't need to touch the patient, you don't need to be there. You can be anywhere, since the decision on healthcare management is based on history and interpretation of images and chemistry … so technically speaking, 99% of health-care problems can be managed by the doctors staying at a remote place—linked by telemedicine.”

With the aid of HealthSAT, India's telemedicine initiative has the potential to provide specialized health care to millions of poor Indians, writes Sanjit Bagchi in his article Telemedicine in Rural India.  

Dr Shetty's experience and record in performing heart surgeries is acknowledged world over. Dr Shetty's team has performed over 70,000 major heart surgeries out of which 15,000 operations have been on children, many of them new born babies. He trained to be a heart surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, London where his colleagues would call him an “operating machine” since he loved heart surgery and could do them endlessly without tiring.

Dr Shetty worked as a thoracic surgeon under National Health Service UK at Brompton Hospital and Guys Hospital London between 1983-1989. He is Professor of International Health – University of Minnesota Medical School, USA and Rajeev Gandhi University of Health Sciences, Karnataka, Bangalore. He is the first heart surgeon in India to perform heart surgeries on new-born babies, using a micro-chip camera to close holes in the heart.

Dr Shetty became a doctor due to the recurrent illness of his parents. He writes in his letter, “You must be wondering what inspired me to take this path. I guess I became a doctor because of the recurrent illness of my parents. My childhood was spent with the fear of losing my mother. My father, who was a diabetic, had multiple episodes of diabetic coma. In the lives of the nine of us, God’s clear image was that of Doctor who could save the lives of our parents. Another childhood incident left a lasting impression on my young mind. I remember: It was a Saturday afternoon; I was trying to build a car, I think, out of matchboxes and sticks, like all the other children in my village. My mother was speaking to a distant relative of ours in Bombay. This lady was telling my mother about a particular surgeon who, apart from saving her child’s life, also offered his service completely free of cost. I could hear my mother blessing the mother of that surgeon for giving birth to such a wonderful person and ended up saying that this world is still a wonderful place because of people like him.”

After his training in England, Dr Shetty returned to India in 1989 to start a state-of-the-art heart hospital called B. M. Birla Heart Research Centre at Calcutta, which would become one of the best heart hospitals in India. And Dr Shetty became a hero not just in India but also in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Immediately after the Research Center was set up, he set up the paediatric cardiac surgical facilities to take care of children suffering from heart diseases. Dr Shetty’s mother used to live in a small town near Mangalore at that time. On the day of his father’s death anniversary, his mother was sitting in the prayer room the whole day. In the evening, his sister called out to her to show her son on national television.

“My mother hurried to the living room to see her son on TV with a 9-day-old baby who had undergone a successful open-heart surgery. He was the youngest baby at that point of time in India to undergo a successful open-heart surgery. It was the beginning of heart surgery on newborn babies in India.”

Dr Devi Shetty with Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina

Speaking to CSP, Dr Shetty says, “Cardiac surgery is the most exciting profession in the world and if I have to come back to this world many times in the future I would like to be a heart surgeon nothing else. I get the unique opportunity to interact with hundreds of patients in need of help and become a hero in real life. Fortunately this profession today gives you an opportunity to bring someone out from the jaws of death just by using your skill and passion. I wish lot more youngsters take up this wonderful profession.”

Contribution to Healthcare

Dr Shetty’s team is the first in the world to coin the term ‘Micro Health Insurance.’ He helped the Karnataka State Government to launch Yeshashwini Micro Health Insurance considered as the largest Micro Health Insurance Programme in the world. He also started Arogya Raksha Yogana in association with Kiran Majumdar Shaw of Biocon.

Additionally, his was the first team to coin the term “Health City” and is in the process of creating 5000 bed Health cities in every state capital of India. He manages the world’s largest Telemedicine Programme through Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), as well as a chain of Rural Clinics in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.

“India can become the first country in the world to dissociate healthcare from affluence. However for this to happen, first we have to liberate medical nursing and paramedical education and digitise medical records. Apart from this, India desperately needs an affordable health insurance for middle-class people. Ayushman Bharat will of course cover poor people and rich people can buy the regular expensive health insurance,” says Dr Shetty.

Dr Shetty has also inspired many youngsters to get fitter, a subject close to his heart. “For a healthy life everyone past the age of 30 must undergo a CT scan of the heart to find out very early coronary artery disease which is rampant. CT scan of the heart can predict heart attack 10 years in advance giving enough time for patients to change the lifestyle. Your health is directly related to what you eat, so eat healthy food and avoid tobacco in any form.”   

Even at the end of a very tiring day, Dr Shetty’s finishes his round with a pleasant smile. His very presence is calming and very reassuring to anxious families, including mine at one point of time as he operated on my father two decades ago.

Asked about his utter calm in the face of what can only be extreme stress in the face of high expectations from family members, Dr Shetty says, “Regular half an hour to 45 minutes of exercise is extremely important not only for the heart also for your mind and the musculoskeletal system. Most important advice for everyone is to be spiritual, I am not asking you to be religious. Belief in God is the most stabilising factor for everyone in their daily life.”