Can India leapfrog AI in healthcare through digital pathology?

18th November 2021

India is marching on a digital health journey through the launch of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM). It lays the foundation of digital health infrastructure which will enable running integrated programs of the future. Being a centralized structure, will contribute to data integration and also help in uncovering macro and micro trends.

Experts opine that AI is expected to change how we live, something similar to what the arrival of the internet did. One interesting AI application in healthcare can be through digital pathology.

Pathology is one field that has not changed much since its beginning. Most pathologists still use traditional microscopes. This not only creates bottlenecks but also hinders their efficiency due to the reduced role of digital tools.

AI output

However, with the increasing efficiency and reducing cost of digital scanning of slides, the wave of digital pathology is on the anvil. There have been increasing efforts across the world to adopt and digitize the pathology workflow. Many elements of analysis can be done on digitized slides. Different AI tools can be trained on digital images and various levels of automation can be done using deep learning.

Since the entire world has just begun, there is a moment of opportunity for India to leapfrog others because of the following reasons:

  1. India has a huge population: This makes the case that one of the solutions to address the gap of demand and supply of pathologists would be to increase the role of technology. 
  2. The increasing burden of diseases like cancers: There is an increasing burden on pathology with an increasing number of biopsy slides needed to be reported from pathologists.
  3. Very few specialized pathologists in the country: With the increasing population and burden of diseases, there would be increased pressure, backlog, and burden of few specialized pathologists serving the ever-growing need for reporting. AI will accentuate the pathologist`s impact like autopilot does for pilots by reducing the burden on them through the automation of mundane tasks.

However, there are many advantages India has that make the case for stronger push for the digitization of the pathology in the country-

Data is new oil
  1. National level integrated NDHM network: The fact that the country is making efforts to create a unified system for digital architecture lays a great foundation for future innovation making it possible to scale a successful innovation at a national level.
  2. Huge data sources: Data is the new oil, although, the fact that the possibility of data is humongous in the country makes it one of the few countries which can reap benefits if the groundwork is done in a proper way by capturing good quality structured data.
  3. Economies of scale: Most of the theses sophisticated technologies are expensive and the return of investment (ROI) proves difficult with a limited number of used cases in a declining population of western countries. However, in India, the return of investment can be exponential by virtue of its growing middle-class population.

Digital pathology is a space where the race is still wide open in the world. India has the golden opportunity to lead the race if it plays its cards right. The first step in the form of NDHM has generated the buzz, and it seems to be on the right path. A collaborative approach between government, private players, and startups as an innovation catalyst can emerge as a winning combination for the country and for the world. Digital pathology is one domain that should be on everyone’s radar. India should leverage its big base and its unique strength in numbers to dominate this AI arms race.

Disclaimer: Author is a product strategist/manager for a startup creating a suite of customizable, modular, global digital pathology tools. Opinions expressed are personal opinions of the author.