India’s foray into telemedicine has taken a significant step forward. Fortis Healthcare, a leading health care group, recently introduced the country’s first e-intensive care unit (e-ICU). Called CritiNext, the e-ICU from Fortis enables a remote hospital to provide advanced care to critically ill patients without having to physically move them to specialty hospitals. The CritiNext e-ICU has its command center at the Fortis Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi and is powered by a solution developed by GE Healthcare. “With CritiNext, we want to make specialty critical care accessible and affordable to patients in [the] small towns of India,” says Amit Varma, director of critical care medicine at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute.

Varma points out there are around five million ICU admissions in India annually, but there are less than 5,000 intensive care doctors across the country. Patients in hospitals without ICU facilities are typically moved to where the care is available. This is both expensive and unsafe for the patients. With the CritiNext e-ICU, patients are connected to the command center in New Delhi, where a team of critical care physicians monitor them in real time. Doctors can be alerted to a spike in white blood cell count, the start of a low-grade fever and so on. The physicians at the command center assist in treatment through the local on-site physicians using audio and video facilities.

According to a GE Healthcare India spokesperson, this system was developed by the company’s India team for the India market. “We are seeing a tremendous interest from other players also and expect this concept to catch on,” he says.

At present, CritiNext has a team of 18 medical professionals at the command center and covers 34 ICU beds in four hospitals outside New Delhi. “We brought a few doctors and nurses from these hospitals to our ICUs in Delhi and put them through a training module. [After] that, we continue to maintain very strict training and quality parameters to ensure that they are updated in their knowledge,” says Varma.

By the end of the year, Varma is looking to cover 150 beds at different locations across the country and 500 beds by the end of 2014. These will be in hospitals attached to the Fortis group as well as in non-Fortis hospitals.

Rana Mehta, executive director and leader of the health care practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers, sees this as a very positive move. “In India, we face a skills shortage of trained doctors in intensive care. The e-ICU will bring about a huge shift in the availability and the optimum use of these skill sets. It will enable patients in remote locations to get a different level of expertise than they normally would.”

Mehta does not see any major challenges ahead and expects the trend to catch on. “The technology for telemedicine is fairly robust now. I see this as a win-win situation for everyone. Hospitals in small towns and rural areas are unable to take on critical cases because they don’t have the facilities to manage them. The e-ICU will give a huge level of comfort to both the providers in these locations and also to the patients.”