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India’s policy on using AI for healthcare needs a relook in post Covid-19 era


By Dhritiman Biswas

Steve Jobs once famously said: Focus and simplicity – once you get there, you can move mountains.

This quote aptly captures what Indian healthcare startups need to do to become ‘Atmanirbhar’ (self-dependent) in healthcare over the next 5 to 10 years horizon.

India is currently distracted, and rightfully so, in a bid to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. However, COVID-19 has thrown up some potential opportunities in a sea of challenges. During this period, when most of the country is sitting at home, health and economy has been the primary focus of the people. They have also realized that they need to focus on their health to better their immune system.

This phase has also exposed the gaps in the Indian healthcare system – be it over dependence on imported API for majority of the drugs, or the lack of hospital facilities, or the inability to reach out in the deepest parts of the country for testing and tracing.

While the Central and state Governments run against time to fix these gaps, the healthcare ecosystem needs to look at the glass as half full. There are some inherent opportunities here, and of course some policy fixes would be necessary to create the rainbow.

The Atmanirbhar principle, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined, needs to be firmly carried forward, with a technological twist.

With citizens getting more conscious of their health, the preventive healthcare market will explode in India. This is already a focus area for the Government and as per some media reports, this market is expected to touch the $100 Billion mark by 2022. This estimate was done in pre-COVID time. As per International Data Corporation (IDC), the wrist wear wearables hold a 35% share and grew by about 52% in 2019. This indicates the level of health awareness of the people.

As per Economic Times, a report published in The Lancet in 2018 showed that nearly 2.4 million Indians die of treatable conditions every year.

Indian healthcare startups should look at opportunities to combine – these millions of data generation units (wearables) with big data analytics, artificial intelligence, real time diagnostics, machine learning with the ‘last mile connectivity’ of healthcare delivery systems including medicines. Fortunately, VC funding in the Indian MedTech space has steadily increased over the years, as per media reports.

This will not only help create nuanced vaccines and drugs using vast amounts of data coming from millions of people, in real time, but will also reduce dependence on India’s healthcare system and use preventive care mechanisms for disease management.

In December 2019, Niti Aayog called for greater usage of AI in the healthcare ecosystem. Soon after this, the pandemic hit India. The Union Minister for Health, Dr Harshvardhan has also spoken positively of the need of AI in healthcare.

Certain key policy decisions need to be crafted to facilitate this sector, especially with regard to diagnostics policies (viz-a-vis real time data collection and real time diagnostic output), data localization (a key decision concerning multiple sectors like telecommunications, healthcare, finance among others), telemedicine (a policy which was stuck for years and is now being implemented in islands of excellence across the country due to advent of COVID), and online pharmacy (checks and balances concerning prescription drugs, dangers of self-medication etc).

All the policies were drafted in the pre-COVID era, where mobility of patients and access to healthcare and medicines held a certain meaning. These assumptions have mostly gone out of the window. Restriction on movement, lack of immediate access to healthcare due to fear of contamination in hospitals and disruption in local and global supply chain of drugs (either due to local lockdowns or external political factors) have changed the paradigm completely – and this demands all policies to be revised with new imperatives suitable for and keeping in mind similar situations in the future.

This would then help the fledgling healthcare startup firms to not only compete with biggies, but also to monetize in a way the patients and the companies can co-exist without being a burden on each other.

If Steve Jobs was alive today, in this era of quantum computing and 5G, he may have said: focus on data, it will move mountains.

(
The writer is a public policy expert, based in the world’s largest functional democracy and passionately believes that better public policy is the cornerstone of better governance. He is occasionally found on @tweetsofDB.)





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