Rupandeep Kaur, 20 weeks pregnant, arrived at a medical clinic looking fatigued and ready to collapse. After being asked her name and address, she was taken to see a physician who reviewed her medical history, asked several questions, and ordered a series of tests including blood and urine. These tests revealed that her fetus was healthy but Kaur had dangerously low hemoglobin and blood pressure levels. The physician, Alka Choudhry, ordered an ambulance to take her to a nearby hospital.
All of this, including the medical tests, happened in 15 minutes at the Peeragarhi Relief Camp in New Delhi, India. The entire process was automated — from check-in, to retrieval of medical records, to testing and analysis and ambulance dispatch. The hospital also received Kaur’s medical records electronically. There was no paperwork filled out, no bills sent to the patient or insurance company, no delay of any kind. Yes, it was all free.
The hospital treated Kaur for mineral and protein deficiencies and released her the same day. Had she not received timely treatment, she may have had a miscarriage or lost her life.
This was more efficient and advanced than any clinic I have seen in the West. And Kaur wasn’t the only patient, there were at least a dozen other people who received free medical care and prescriptions in the one hour that I spent at Peeragrahi in early March.
The facility, called the “mohalla” (or people’s) clinic, was opened in July 2015 by Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. This is the first of 1,000 clinics that he announced would be opened in India’s capital for the millions of people in need. Delhi’s health minister Satyendar Jain, who came up with the idea for the clinics, told me he believes that not only will they reduce suffering, but also overall costs — because people will get timely care and not be a burden on hospital emergency rooms. The technology that made the instant diagnosis possible at Peeragarhi was medical device called the Swasthya Slate. This $600 device, the size of a cake tin, performs 33 common medical tests including blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, blood haemoglobin, urine protein and glucose. And it tests for diseases such as malaria, dengue, hepatitis, HIV, and typhoid. Each test only takes a minute or two and the device uploads its data to a cloud-based medical-record management system that can be accessed by the patient.
The Swasthya Slate was developed by Kanav Kahol, a biomedical engineer at Arizona State University’s department of biomedical informatics until he became frustrated at the lack of interest by the medical establishment in reducing the cost of diagnostic testing. He worried that billions of people were getting no medical care or substandard care because of the medical industry’s motivation in keeping prices high. In 2011, he returned home to New Delhi to develop a solution.
Kahol had noted that despite the similarities between medical devices in their computer displays and circuits, their packaging made them unduly complex and difficult for anyone but highly skilled practitioners to use.
They were also incredibly expensive — usually costing tens of thousands of dollars each. He believed he could take the same sensors and microfluidics technologies that the expensive medical devices used and integrate them into an open medical platform. And with off-the-shelf computer tablets, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence software, he could simplify the data analysis in a way that minimally trained front-line workers could understand.
By January 2013, Kahol had built the Swasthya Slate and persuaded the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in Northern India, to allow its use in six underserved districts with a population of 2.1 million people.
The device is now in use at 498 clinics there. Mothers are getting care in their villages now instead of having to travel to clinics in cities.
A newer version of the Slate, called HealthCube, was tested last month by nine teams of physicians and technology, operations, and marketing experts at Peru’s leading hospital, Clinica Internacional. They tested its accuracy against the western equipment that they use, its durability in emergency room and clinical settings, the ability of minimally trained clinicians to use it in rural settings, and its acceptability to patients. Clinica’s general manager, Alvaro Chavez Tori, told me in an email that the tests were highly successful and “acceptance of the technology was amazingly high.”
He sees this technology as a way of helping the millions of people in Peru and Latin America who lack access to quality diagnostics.
The opportunity is bigger than Latin America, however. When it comes to health care, the United States has many of the same problems as the developing world. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 33 million Americans or 10.4 percent of the U.S. population still lacks health insurance. These people are disproportionately poor, black or Hispanic, and 4.5 million are children. As a result, they receive less preventive care and suffer from more serious illness — which are extremely costly to treat. Emergency rooms of hospitals are overwhelmed by uninsured patients seeking basic medical care. And when they have insurance, families are often bankrupted by medical costs.
It may well be time for America to build mohalla clinics in its cities.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. This column was first published in The Washington Post.