Healthtech and AI: Curill’s Attempt to Digitise Indian Healthcare
Although the health of Indians has improved dramatically since the 90s – life expectancy has increased by around 10 years – the level of inequality continues to pose challenges, which tech startups are now turning their eye to.
The disparity in the availability of healthcare can be seen across gender and state divides with life expectancy for women at around 66.8 years in Uttar Pradesh and 78.7 years in Kerala. For men, the numbers are 63.6 years in Assam and 73.8 years in Kerala. And while communicable diseases are generally down as a proportion (from 61% to 33%), diarrhoeal diseases, lower respiratory infections, iron-deficiency anaemia, neonatal preterm birth, and tuberculosis still remain high priorities.
The lack of ubiquity in the healthcare system has motivated the tech sector to get involved with companies like Curill, whose co-founder and CEO Dr Vivek Sharma spoke to us over the phone about the challenges they face and their methods of tackling them. “There should be at least one doctor for every 1,000 people,” he began, in a calm and assured tone, “in India, it’s one doctor for 1,700 people. And this problem is compounded by the fact that the distribution of healthcare is skewed. As you go from urban areas to rural areas the availability of healthcare becomes very poor.”
Dr Sharma’s identification of the poor distribution of doctors is reflected in the aforementioned report on inequality – so, after studying in India and the US, Dr Sharma came back to India to solve the problem. It’s a problem which other companies around India are also trying to solve: Max Bupa, for example, has launched their AnyTimeHealth machines to allow users to get health insurance as they go about their day, and DocTalk recently closed $5 million in funding and is trying to tackle a similar problem to Curill. But while DocTalk allows patients and doctors to store their records online, and allows patients to message doctors for simple queries or prescription renewals, Curill is attempting to go one step further.
The idea is to get an AI engine to deal with medical information in much the same way a doctor does. “Each disease has a different epidemiology, distribution across regions, gender, age, and each symptom has it’s own sensitivity and specificity,” Sharma continued. “I myself have been practising for quite some time and the way I approach the problem is that if I’m able to do something in the clinic then the computer should be able to deal with it in a very similar way.”
The team of three doctors Sharma leads are currently working away to scope out diseases and symptoms for their AI engine to deal with, which they then upload to the system and go through a process of validating the machine’s diagnoses to train it up. This takes time because the validation has to be done by real doctors, and after nearly 20 months in operation the team have got the engine working with 43 diseases and 104 symptoms.
Sharma says they need to be at 250 diseases and around 400-500 symptoms for the system to be really useful, and with the company engaging in outreach for funding within the next few months, they should be able to speed the process up. But the uptake has already been emphatic, the platform has accumulated 2,000 users.
A decent level of traffic is far from guaranteed, the Indian government has only just got going on an initiative to provide broadband across the country. And Sharma spoke of the difficulties of overcoming the cynicism towards AI in India’s rural regions. But he remains positive, convinced it’s only a matter of raising awareness from which point the level of benefit can be easily proven.
Further, he sees the lack of development in India’s digitisation as an opportunity, not an obstacle, for tech companies like his own to make a difference to Indian society. It seems of crucial importance to him that rural Indian’s aren’t left behind and they have the right level of information when it comes to their health, “so at least they know what symptom means what, and don’t delay going to a doctor,” he says and, in a summary of Curill’s purpose, he went on to say that “they don’t have to suffer later because they can’t pay attention to it in the present.”