Year : 2021  |  Volume : 63  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 97--101

Telemedicine practice guidelines of India, 2020: Implications and challenges


Damodharan Dinakaran, Narayana Manjunatha, Channaveerachari Naveen Kumar, Suresh Bada Math 
 Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Correspondence Address:
Damodharan Dinakaran
Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Hosur Road, Bengaluru - 560 029, Karnataka
India

Abstract

Telemedicine Guidelines of India, 2020 promises to pave a road map for regularization and diversification of teleconsultation services across the country. This guideline is the need of the hour, especially during the current coronavirus disease pandemic. All modes of communications (text, audio, video, etc.) between the service provider and user are included in the broad rubric of the guidelines. Scope, inclusions, exclusions, and restrictions are clearly specified in the guideline. Medications are grouped and listed for the specific type of consultation, and restricted drugs are notified. This guideline especially helps mitigate the gaps in legislation and reduces the uncertainty while providing a practical, safe, and cost-effective framework to improve healthcare service delivery in this article; the authors discuss the implications of this new guideline and the challenges during the implementation of teleconsultation services across the country.



How to cite this article:
Dinakaran D, Manjunatha N, Kumar CN, Math SB. Telemedicine practice guidelines of India, 2020: Implications and challenges.Indian J Psychiatry 2021;63:97-101


How to cite this URL:
Dinakaran D, Manjunatha N, Kumar CN, Math SB. Telemedicine practice guidelines of India, 2020: Implications and challenges. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Sep 25 ];63:97-101
Available from: https://www.indianjpsychiatry.org/text.asp?2021/63/1/97/309483


Full Text



 Introduction



On March 25, 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India, had released the “Telemedicine Practice Guidelines” for allopathic registered medical practitioners (RMPs). This guideline is prepared by the Board of Governors, Medical Council of India, in partnership with the National Institution for Transforming India (Aayog). This would be included in the Appendix V of 2002 Regulations on “Professional Conduct and Ethics” under the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956. This amendment is valid according to the National Medical Commission Act, 2019, Section 61 (Subsection-2). The document is accessible at https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/Telemedicine.pdf. The guidelines enable the RMPs to deliver healthcare using technology. This document provides definitions, scope, and protocols with roles and responsibilities of the patients, RMPs, healthcare workers, and telehealth platforms. Although the guideline is for universal healthcare across India, it is reviewed here from the mental healthcare service delivery perspective.

 Scope of the Guidelines



The guidelines include all the channels of communications (text, audio, video, etc.) and provide norms and standards for RMPs registered under the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 (i.e., allopathic practitioners). The guidelines specifically exclude teleconsultations outside the jurisdiction of India. Tele-assisted/remote surgeries, research, and education of health workers are also excluded. The guidelines also exclude the specifications for hardware/software, infrastructure, and data management system standards. Seven elements are emphasized as cardinal while considering telemedicine consultations, namely, context, identification of RMP/patient, mode of communication, consent, type of consultation, patient evaluation, and management. Patients and RMPs are enabled to communicate using any mode of available information technology solutions. Synchronous and asynchronous communication modes are allowed, and both the first and follow-up consultations could be facilitated. Provisions for emergency acute care and mandatory in-person referrals following such consultations are specified.

The patient/caregiver could initiate consultations and terminate the same at any stage. Discretion to use the available means to collect necessary information is left with the RMP's judgment. RMPs are mandated to prescribe medicines only if there is a reasonable satisfaction about the adequacy of received information. Medicines are categorized for the specific type of consultation, namely, List O, List A, List B, and prohibited list. List O includes drugs that are available over the counter (e.g., paracetamol and antacids). List A includes drugs that are safe and without any abuse potential (e.g., eye drops/ointment, skin creams, and oral hypoglycemic agents). It is mandated by the guideline to have a video consultation before prescribing List A drug for the first time. Refill of List A drugs is, however, allowed routinely. List B includes add-on drugs that are used to optimize regimen for the existing illness (e.g., enalapril added to existing atenolol to manage hypertension). Prohibited list includes drugs listed in the Schedule X of Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1945 and drugs in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychoactive Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS Act 1985) (e.g., benzodiazepines, phenobarbitone, and methylphenidate). Drugs such as phenobarbitone, clonazepam, and clobazam were added to List A in the recent modification of the guidelines (https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/Modificationin MedicineListinTelemedicinePracticeGuidelines.pdf). Details about implied/explicit consent, data privacy, and maintenance of confidentiality are provided along with a sample format for the standard prescription.

 Critique



The National Mental Health Survey of India, 2016 reports a huge treatment gap ranging from 75% to 93%.[1] In this context, the telemedicine initiative to improve the accessibility of healthcare is much appreciated by all the stakeholders. This is seen as a game-changer in the healthcare delivery. In addition, during the pandemic such as coronavirus disease 2019, the telemedicine services are crucial to reach the unreached. Telemedicine reduces in-person consultations and minimizes the risk of contagious illness spread during pandemics. This guideline enables accessibility, particularly when nonessential outpatient services are stopped. Although service providers were interested to provide teleconsultations, lack of such guidelines had led to inhibition and inertia from the health industry.[2] This guideline especially helps mitigate the gaps in legislation and reduces the uncertainty while providing a practical, safe, and cost-effective framework to improve healthcare service delivery.

Consultations for routine follow-up and continuous monitoring could be avoided since in-person visit is not mandatory. Proxy consultations with provision to initiate consultation by a caregiver are much appreciated and needed in psychiatric practice. Telemedicine helps reduce unnecessary travel cost and effort, especially for the rural people. This would also reduce the burden on secondary and tertiary hospitals. RMPs are allowed to consult patients across the entirety of the nation that enables fast, easy, and equitable access to all parts of the country. Any patient from any corner of the country could initiate and request consultation from the specialists in the field. This ensures universal access of specialist care which is a dream even in developed countries that has state/zone restrictions.[3] The Mental Health Care Act, 2017 (MHCA 2017) emphasizes rights-based approach and mandates the government to ensure that every citizen has accessibility to the mental health services. In a country such as India, where the health expenditure is just 1% of the gross domestic product, telemedicine is a potential option to successfully implement the provisions of the MHCA 2017.[4] This guideline offers legal protection to all the stakeholders and higher likelihood in maintaining patient records and monitoring medication adherence.

Although this guideline is envisaged to bring in a paradigm shift in the healthcare delivery, it has certain important limitations. The network connectivity is still poor in many regions of our country. People from remote/rural areas are not specifically updated with the current technology platforms, and this might hinder effective communication during video consultation which is stipulated essential to prescribe List A drugs. Even, the healthcare personnel's skills are limited in utilizing the available technology solutions. The guidelines mention that a special online education course would be formulated, and RMPs would be directed to finish the same within the next 3 years. This might enhance the digital literacy of RMPs and translate into effective promotion of telemedicine. On the other hand, text and audio consultations are feasible across the country but have their own limitations. RMPs might need to send prescriptions online, and the availability of internet services is essential at both ends. Even when the patient receives such prescriptions, the routinely prescribed psychotropics are seldom available in remote areas, and this might limit the benefits of teleconsultation. The guideline prohibits prescribing specific drugs (e.g., benzodiazepines [except clonazepam] and methylphenidate). This is intended to prevent the misuse. However, various other benzodiazepines are frequently used class of drugs for many indications in psychiatric prescriptions.[5] Benzodiazepines are included as scheduled drugs under the NDPS Act 1985 which restricts its use. This guideline further tightens prescribing benzodiazepines which are an issue of concern. Furthermore, benzodiazepines and stimulants such as methylphenidate are frequently used in addiction treatment. This restriction is viewed as a disadvantage for addiction management. The guideline also had not mentioned specifically about prescribing long-acting depot injectable over teleconsultation.

RMPs are provided with a wide spectrum of flexible opportunities that also have its challenges. Liberty provided in the guideline also implies certain additional responsibilities. RMPs are mandated with the following:

To use professional discretion to decide whether teleconsultation is suitable in the given circumstancesTo decide the best possible mode of communicating with the patientTo uphold the same standard of care as an in-person consultation within the intrinsic limits of telemedicineTo confirm the identification and credentials of patient/caregiverTo obtain consent from the individuals and record this in patient's reportsTo collect information through all available means and make sure that adequate information is available to make provisional diagnosisTo advice appropriate health education/counseling or investigationsTo prescribe medicines only if there is a provisional diagnosisTo confirm the patient's age specifically before prescribing medicinesTo prescribe medicines in the standard provided format and send it to the patientTo display their registration number provided by the appropriate council on websites, e-mails, prescriptions, and receipts/invoice givenTo provide first aid/counseling during emergency consults and mandatorily advice for an in-person visit as early as possibleTo maintain the trail of conversations and treatment recordsTo ensure patient's privacy and confidentiality to a reasonable degreeTo provide reasonable evidence that data breach has happened secondary to compromised technology or other personsTo abort the consultation session and refer for in-person treatment based on professional judgment.

Although most of the mentioned responsibilities are same and applicable for in-person consultations as well, the challenges are to confirm the identification/credentials, to maintain records and privacy, and most importantly to provide the same standard of care as an in-person consultation. What is the “reasonable” degree of maintenance of privacy/confidentiality? Or what would be considered as “reasonable” evidence in case of breach of data? Penalties and punishment for misconduct and negligence would be similar to an in-person consultation provided under the existing laws. When patients and RMPs use third-party platforms for communication, problems might arise from many sources. How legitimate is it to consider telemedicine misconducts as similar to in-person grievances? These questions remain and need further clarification.

Challenges in implementation across the country are follows:

In India, health is a state subject. Although this guideline provides for RMPs to practice across the country, local state government regulations might be a potential hindranceWhen a grievance arises from interstate teleconsultation, legal jurisdiction of such case proceedings is not clarifiedIf a patient/caregiver records the communication with RMP and if third-party telehealth software/platforms keep records of the private data and when these recordings are made available to public, ways to address such concerns are not elaboratedThe guideline is also quiet about the insurance cover for teleconsultations and prescriptionsSoftware aggregators might enable options to give ratings/scores to specific RMPs by service users, and this might be used for promotions/advertisements. Although the guideline prohibits RMPs from advertising their telemedicine services, software aggregators might indirectly promote/advertise RMPs, and this is another limitationAlthough online prescription is promoted, many parts of the country do not have access to e-pharmacy. Steps to regulate such online drug marts are not mentioned.

The complete list of drugs belonging to various categories in the guideline is not provided yet, and the place of different psychotropics in these lists is unclear. E-pharmacy regulations might improve the transparency and promote universal accessibility to medicines. Research and educating the healthcare workers are excluded from the scope of the guidelines currently and hopefully would be enabled in the future. Counseling the patients with basic nonpharmacological tips is included in the guideline. However, clarity on existing psychotherapy modules is missing and if at all could be provided by medical practitioners only. The guidelines acknowledge the risks, drawbacks, and limitations of telemedicine and wish to provide mitigations such as appropriate training and enforcement of standards/protocols. In addition, the guideline also specifies measures for technology platforms that enable telemedicine consultations. The use of artificial intelligence or machine learning applications to counsel or to prescribe medicines is strictly prohibited. However, how exactly these mitigations would be translated from paper to practice need to be seen.

 Guidelines from the Psychiatrists' Perspective



Telemedicine guidelines provide immense opportunity to make the mental health services accessible across the country. The opportunities and challenges provided by the guidelines from the psychiatrists' perspective are summarized in [Table 1].{Table 1}

 Experience at Telemedicine Centre, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences



Telemedicine Centre, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, had initiated collaborative care in psychiatry since January 2011.[6] Here, the collaboration is between the psychiatry specialists at Bengaluru and RMPs at remote areas in Karnataka. Such collaboration has resulted in increased accessibility of specialist care in remote areas.[6] Furthermore, telepsychiatry aftercare clinic for already registered patients was initiated in December 2016.[2] This service had led to feasible continuity of care using video consultation.[2] Further, collaborative neuropsychiatric consultations for patients in prison were also provided using telemedicine platform.[7] This telemedicine guideline provides much-needed road map to diversify the abovementioned services across the country.

 Conclusion



This initial attempt by the authorities in regulating the telemedicine services is appreciated by all the stakeholders as an easy and cost-effective strategy to provide equitable access to healthcare. This is a simple, provider-friendly, and user-friendly guideline that lays important foundation to initiate the telemedicine services across the nation. Benefits definitely outweigh the risks involved in the practice. Although the guideline is for universal healthcare, specific limitations from psychiatric practice perspective are elaborated. The authors hope that further amendments to this guideline might shed light on these shortcomings and promote the translation of enumerated benefits from paper to the public. Both the service providers and users stand to gain significantly by embracing the telemedicine practice and thereby begin the transformation of public health care in India.

Financial support and sponsorship

Nil.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

References

1Gururaj G, Varghese M, Benegal V, Rao GN, Pathak K, Singh L, et al. National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16. Bengaluru: Prevalence, Pattern and Outcomes; 2017.
2Das S, Manjunatha N, Kumar CN, Math SB, Thirthalli J. Tele-psychiatric after care clinic for the continuity of care: A pilot study from an academic hospital. Asian J Psychiatr 2020;48:101886.
3Naylor KB, Tootoo J, Yakusheva O, Shipman SA, Bynum JPW, Davis MA. Geographic variation in spatial accessibility of U.S. healthcare providers. PLoS One 2019;14:e0215016.
4Math SB, Gowda GS, Basavaraju V, Manjunatha N, Kumar CN, Enara A, et al. Cost estimation for the implementation of the Mental Healthcare Act 2017. Indian J Psychiatry 2019;61:S650-9.
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