How AI, Blockchain, Big Data Can Prove Game Changers in Quality of Sexual Healthcare in India

Dr Manmohan Vaidya
·6-min read

It is widely agreed that in the 21st century, human progress is best summarised as the story of utilising technology, fine tuning it and making it widespread. It has impacted lives by reducing the cost of essential services, turned the world into a connected node, and spawned creative solutions.

Amid this, there are a few sectors where immediate tech deployment can do wonders: in terms of widening the access net, ensuring user privacy and devising more effective solutions. Healthcare, particularly for women in India, is one such area that is often neglected and where the advent of tech solutions would be a leap towards empowerment and gender equality.

Such solutions can be hugely beneficial, especially in a country like India where there are still a significant number of people who lack access to basic healthcare facilities. These solutions, combined with emerging technologies like AI, Blockchain and Big Data, can vastly improve the quality of sexual healthcare facilities in India. Consequently, this can contribute to the progress made over the past several years in the country towards the decline in maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate. There are a few key areas in sexual and reproductive healthcare where use of emerging technology in India can be reformative.

Timely Pregnancy Diagnosis

Maternal health acts as a marker of a country's healthcare system. While India has made progress in improving maternal health in the last decade, there is still a lot to be done. India's current maternal mortality rate is 122 per 100,000 live births. We need to scale up further to reach the global target of 70 by 2030 according to global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The use of technology for timely pregnancy diagnosis for women in India so that requisite care can be provided to both the mother and the child is imperative to achieve this goal.

A lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services caused sharp spikes in maternal and neonatal mortality at the start of Covid-19 outbreak. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that there could be up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide because of the crisis, with potentially thousands of deaths from unsafe abortion and complications during birth due to inadequate access to emergency care. An estimate by the Foundation for Reproductive Health Services, India (FRISHI) suggests that 26 million couples will be unable to access contraceptives in India. The interruption in provision of reproductive health services due to the lockdown could lead to an additional 2.3 million unintended pregnancies and over 800,000 unsafe abortions.

Technologies such as mobile diagnostic devices that can diagnose pregnancies for women in rural India who do not have access to a healthcare centre can meet the critical gap in timely diagnosis of pregnancies in the country. In the case of a pregnant woman, further care can be supplemented with diagnostic devices such as digital stethoscope, blood pressure meter, urine analyser, glucometer, e-partograph for monitoring labour progress, etc. A kit comprising these diagnostic devices already being used in some parts in India if made available across the country can help improve timely diagnosis of pregnancy in India and reform maternal health in the country.

Innovation and Affordability

As per CB Insights, the three main drivers of innovation in women’s healthcare are connectivity, accessibility and de-stigmatisation. While all the three factors are interconnected and hinge on each other, the need for de-stigmatisation is paramount. Discrimination against menstruating women who are considered impure continues to be common. Dispelling these attitudes is a fundamental prerequisite for both empowerment and tech access.

According to a survey by Privacy International, 94% primary health centres and 60% community health centers did not offer any abortion care services. As of 2014, many of these centers remain under-staffed, under-resourced, and below Indian Public Health Standards. It stresses the need for DIY tech solutions at early stages for early diagnosis and saving lives.

Urban Ailments

Urban women in India too stand to benefit from tech solutions, as a lot of lifestyle diseases can be mitigated if tested on a timely basis.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS is more common than it seems, with the positive diagnosis rate of 1 in 5 in urban areas in India. Apps can both create awareness about its symptoms and tell about easy steps for self-diagnosis. On the lines of Doctor Insta and Practo, there are many online healthcare providers and counselors that are coming up, but ones that cater particularly to women's health are yet not conspicuous.

It is estimated that women’s healthcare tech would be a sector worth $30 billion by 2030. In India too there are startups making a foray in this segment, but FemTech isn’t that popular a term as other sectors where tech is the disruptive new normal. This stresses the need for both prioritization of women health issues, making them a part of the discourse and creating a collaborative model that puts a premium on intersectionality along with cost effectiveness and easy-to-use innovative solutions.

Artificial Intelligence and IoT — The New Entrants

In 2017, the Indian government set up an AI Taskforce and recommended the creation of a nodal agency for all activities regarding AI for the betterment of society and keeping it at pace with technological breakthroughs. Healthcare is one of the sectors that has been outlined as AI has immense potential to reduce access barriers and transform the delivery of health services in rural areas. Maternal and child healthcare are among other uses of AI.

Once relevant data has been collated, it will help standardise a process that will keep a tab on number of doctor visits. AI can also be leveraged for other women healthcare issues. The Population Fund of India has implemented AI into one of its programs that communicates reproductive and sexual health information to adolescents. The AI design is in the form of a digital avatar—called Dr. Sneha—who is intended to be a virtual companion for young rural women. There is immense scope for more such cutting-edge solutions by both public and private organizations.

Further, IoT is driving fetal and maternal health monitoring tech. Bloomlife, a US based startup, develops a sensor that monitors the expecting mother’s contractions in real time and transmits the info to a connected app. Israel based Nuvo Group’s wearable sensor band collects heartbeat and uterine contractions, connects with an app, and shares data with the maternity care team. Such customizable tech solutions need to be incubated in India as well.

For technology solutions to percolate till the grassroots level, affordability and building awareness is the key. In order to come up with ingenious, cost-effective and interoperable tech solutions, there needs to be a conducive ecosystem, with active participation from the tech industry, medical professionals and various sectors.

The Author heads the Family Planning Association of India, a civil society organisation working on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR). Views expressed are personal.

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