Today, on World Health Day (WHD), India, like the rest of the world is celebrating 75th anniversary of World Health Organisation (WHO). In 1948, several countries came together to form WHO with a mission to improve public health. 75 years later, with many successful healthcare interventions, WHO continues to motivate action to address health challenges of today and tomorrow. This year the theme for WHD is “Health for All” and for India, digital connectivity has a significant role to play in implementing this goal.
The COVID-19 pandemic shook the Indian healthcare system, but it also opened doors to digital intervention. Indians are now more open and accepting of these interventions in their daily lives. Digital connectivity has made Indians adopt a more preventive health care approach rather than passive and reactive. It is now preferred to make healthy lifestyle choices rather than think of one’s health only when one is disease stricken. For instance, the smartwatch market in India saw 46.9% year-over-year (YoY) growth in 2022 acording to International Data Corporation (IDC). Moreover, people have taken to online consultations to speak with doctors to get immediate advise from the comfort of their homes. Infact, through countrywide telemedicine service: “eSanjeevani”, 17,000 consultations were recorded in a day in March 2022. There has been an increased reliance on purchasing medicines online through mobile applications. According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), before the pandemic, 3.5 million families purchased medicines online and during the pandemic, the figure rose to 9 million, and by 2025, it is expected to reach 70 million.
The Indian Government has introduced several initiatives since the pandemic to make the country digitally empowered on the health front. At the heart of each initiative, is the thought of making the country self-reliant or Atmanirbhar. Following are the key initiatives that have been rolled out along with their implications for the people of India.
- National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) was introduced on 15th of August 2020 to provide holistic healthcare services to the people of India. With the joined forces of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and National Health Authority (NHA), the government intends to strengthen the digital healthcare infrastructure. The aim is to have a national digital health ecosystem that supports an efficient, accessible, inclusive, affordable, timely and safe universal health coverage. NDHM will look at implementing 5 digital systems across the country: Unique Health ID (UHID) like an Aadhaar ID, Digi Doctor (a repository of doctors with their credentials), Health Facility Register (HFR), Personal Health Records (PHR) and Electronic Medical Records (EMR).
- National Digital Health Blueprint (NDHB) is also known as National Health Stack (NHS) and was proposed by NITI Aayog to create a centralised digital repository through its health insurance scheme Ayushman Bharat. NDHB allows citizens to access health records easily from an integrated ecosystem. This prevents the patient to take the same diagnostic tests at a new hospital and rather gives doctors access to an established medical health record.
- Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) was launched in September 2021 under the aegis of the National Health Authority, as a move towards Universal Health Coverage (UHC). The aim of ABDM is to unite all stakeholders in the digital healthcare ecosystem.
- Public digital solutions built during COVID-19 pandemic such as Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network (CoWIN) allowed people to register themselves on a digital platform to book slots for getting vaccinated. Aarogya Setu was another digital solution that allowed people to assess the risk in and around their communities by tracking actives COVID-19 cases and taking necessary precaution. eSanjeevani OPD was developed by Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) to provide medical consultation services.
While these interventions are a move towards strong healthcare systems, there are loopholes that need to be addressed such as immense fragmentation, lack of communication between key decision-making bodies and inequal access to internet services. With digital innovation in the health systems, there is also the concern about data privacy of the patient. Patients and their families must be educated about their options and consent must be taken before sharing private health information. There are legal and ethical challenges that must not be forgotten along with infrastructural challenges. It is simply not important to create the technology but also train and equip the medical workforce to comfortably adapt it. For example, health workers must be equipped to operate new technologies when conducting tests or administering procedures. These are the gaps that must be addressed to holistically move towards a digitally equipped health ecosystem in India.
India is certainly on the path towards “Health for All” through its digital interventions. What is needed is continuous monitoring of existing practices, evolving with rapidly changing landscape and most importantly to educate people to adopt these practices. It is critical to address and eliminate the fear and hesitancy people might have in adopting to technological systems when they have been used to traditional methods of healthcare delivery. It is the right time for India to continue its efforts in the digital health ecosystem, as the country assumes G20 presidency this year. The G20 Global Initiative on Digital Health emphasises on an institutional framework for a connected health system that brings towards global efforts for digital health. India’s presidency will help it to direct attention towards the preparation of a global health accelerator.
Digital healthcare delivery has redefined the relationship between doctor and patient and is prominently seen as a patient first approach. Owing to half a billion Internet users in the country, the Government can envision its digital health plans to come to fruition. There is a lot of potential and all that is needed is collaborative efforts by all the private and Government stakeholders- policymakers, medical fraternity and most importantly the people of India.
Health for All for India shall be accomplished by working in partnership towards a digital future, where no one is left behind.