Cancer is among the fastest-growing diseases globally and in India. A report released by ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) indicates that India will have 13.9 Lakh cancer cases in 2020. This number is likely to increase to 15.7 Lakh cases by 2020. Over the last two decades, access to cancer care has tremendously improved in urban areas.
However, the situation in rural India still remains grim. Even though 65% of Indian population reside in rural areas, their access to cancer diagnosis, treatment and care is fairly limited. Official data indicates that in India the ratio of oncologists to patients is 1:2000. There is an acute shortage of Oncologists in the country to treat current and expected rise of cases. An ICICI Securities report points out the need for comprehensive cancer care centres.
India has only 200-250 such centres, or just 1 for every six million people. From lack of awareness to shortage of Oncologists, there are a number of obstacles in creating better cancer care access in rural areas and small towns. Due to this, most patients end up travelling to urban centres for end to end cancer treatment. This not only causes financial strain but also results in delayed treatment due to logistical challenges.
With so many different types of cancers, the battle against this dreaded disease requires a multi pronged approach with partnerships between public and private players. Like many other critical issues that startups have found solutions to, cancer care in rural areas is one such space where technology startups can bring in significant change. From screening to teleconsultation, prognostic testing to post operative care, many oncology centric startups have already started taking a step towards fighting this enormous battle. Let’s take a look at the areas where tech startups can move the needle in rural cancer care
Early detection and screening of cancer is very critical to control overall fatality. One of the reasons for high cancer mortality rates in rural areas is the lack of awareness about the need for screening and early detection. Let’s take the example of Breast Cancer cases in rural India.
A 2018 study by a doctoral student on 1000 rural women in Maharashtra indicated that 90% of women in rural areas were unaware about breast self examination and almost 50% of women had delayed seeking treatment by three months. To tackle this problem we need large scale awareness drives and regular screening camps in villages and smaller towns.
A number of startups are focused on this segment, where AI & ML driven screening of cases can significantly help practitioners to detect and treat early. For instance, Niramai, a Bengaluru based startup has created an AI-based non-intrusive breast cancer screening solution that can be used for large scale screening in rural and semi urban areas. A portable solution like this can be used in primary health care centres and rural hospitals.
Creating Better Accessibility Through Hub And Spoke Models
When creating solutions for rural India, it’s important to offer end to end solutions. Most rural patients end up travelling to urban centres due to lack of access to right treatment and specialists. From screening the patients for early detection to helping them manage their treatment and chemotherapy sessions, a universal care model has to be provided to ensure better outcomes and make the road to recovery hassle free.
For instance, if a patient is diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, there must be enough facilities available for treatment, consultation and follow ups. A number of startups, including us, are working towards creating an end to end solution for delivery of cancer care in rural areas.
New-age tech-enabled hub and spoke expansion across geographies, equipped with live video conferencing facility for online consultation with Oncologists, diagnosis, treatment guidance and pharma delivery support to patients treated at spokes. Oncology experts from the hub can serve a large number of cases with live monitoring and reporting of instances to government authority for better regulation.
This ‘Hub and Spoke’ model was also recommended by a parliamentary standing committee panel as a solution to provide easy access to cancer treatment.
A number of cancer patients in rural areas end up travelling to bigger cities to seek a second opinion from Oncologists. This not only costs them time but also creates a financial burden. Online second opinion platforms can be crucial in the case of fatal diseases. Irrespective of their location, patients and their families must be able to access expert opinion on their diagnosis and treatment. Many startups are already working towards and have created a significant impact on patients.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, governments have realized the infra requirement for various situations and are thinking towards the improvement of infrastructure for overall healthcare sector. Lack of awareness, limited access, limited infrastructure – there are a number of barriers towards creating better cancer care facilities in rural India. In spite of the challenges, a handful of startups are working towards building solutions that are affordable and accessible for rural India.