Home Insights Health Digitalization: Transforming the Health System

Health Digitalization: Transforming the Health System


Urvashi Prasad

The health sector is information intensive. Over the last few years, India has announced several policy measures to usher in a new era of technology-enabled healthcare delivery.

Following a pilot in six Union Territories, the Prime Minister recently announced the nationwide rollout of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM). Under NDHM, citizens can register for a unique and easy-to-remember health ID carrying details of their health and treatment history. The latter can minimize the need for repeat investigations and facilitate more informed decision-making by doctors. Digital health records can also enable data analytics at the population level to identify treatments which are likely to evoke a better response from patients.

Over the last few years, India has announced several policy measures to usher in a new era of technology-enabled healthcare delivery. National Health Policy, 2017 envisions a digital health ecosystem and recognises the integral role of technologies such as eHealth, mHealth, Internet of Things (IoT), wearables and cloud, among others, in the delivery of health services. In 2018, NITI Aayog released a proposal on National Health Stack with the objective of providing a framework for the country’s futuristic digital health system. In the following year, the National Digital Health Blueprint (NDHB) was finalised by the Government.

The World Bank estimates that India will require 2 million doctors by 2030. While efforts are being made to increase the number of doctors, it is equally critical to enhance their productivity and quality of service delivery. One of the ways in which technology can enable this is by deploying voice- or chat-based bots in hospitals for creating a summary of the patient’s symptoms and medical history prior to consultation with a doctor. Bots can also be trained on infectious disease triaging protocols to segregate patients appropriately within a hospital and minimise infection spread. Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based decision support systems can significantly aid doctors in carrying out many of their clinical tasks. This would be especially helpful in far flung and underserved areas.

Technology can also facilitate the remote management of vulnerable patients, monitoring of chronic conditions like diabetes as well as proactive identification of health problems. As part of remote patient monitoring, mobile medical devices can be used to track vitals. This will not only enable doctors to analyse data in real-time but will also be cost-effective as well as beneficial for treating chronic ailments and providing geriatric care.

According to data released by Practo, a doctor consultation application, over 50 million Indians accessed healthcare through telemedicine during a three-month lockdown period in 2020, of which 80 per cent were first-time users. While most of the services availed during that period were related to Covid, the scope of telemedicine services is being expanded to cover a range of other health problems in the post-Covid era. Efforts are also being made to extend the coverage of telemedicine to rural and remote areas, beyond the urban centres.

The Telemedicine Practice Guidelines were released by Government of India last year to enable timely access to health services. Other measures which could further strengthen the telemedicine ecosystem include creation of a central repository of doctors who can be onboarded across various telemedicine platforms, putting in place mechanisms for providing training to doctors and verifying their credentials from time to time, establishing referral linkages as well as systems for following up with patients who require further investigation post a teleconsultation.

Another important role that technology can play in the health sector is to improve operational efficiencies by strengthening supply chain performance and enabling skilling of health professionals at scale. The medical supply chain, for instance, involves multiple stakeholders including manufacturers, drug purchasing authorities at the state level, state drug stores, primary health centres, community health centres and sub centres, among others. Currently, there are drug stock outs in several places which in turn results in many patients going unserved. Conversely, in other places, there is an excess of medicines. Sensors enabled by IoT can help optimise supply chain management and performance by capturing data related to drugs and patient adherence in real-time. For skilling and upskilling health professionals as well as delivering continuing medical education, digital education platforms can enable dissemination of information pertaining to the latest advancements in the field along with training modules for specific diseases and disaster management.

Finally, technology can be a gamechanger for governance and research. For instance, clean, structured and annotated data made available to AI researchers at the aggregate level can accelerate research efforts and catalyse breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases like tuberculosis and cancer. Integration of various health information systems with standardised data collection formats, interoperability features and unique identifiers for patients and providers can minimise duplication of efforts, data redundancy as well as allow for more targeted planning of programmes, optimisation of resources and monitoring of outcomes.

The health sector is information intensive. While technology is not a magic bullet solution, its adoption at scale can certainly accelerate the transition of India’s health sector from data rich to data intelligent, ultimately improving equity, access, efficiency and quality of health service delivery. To ensure successful deployment of technology-driven initiatives in health, due attention needs to be paid to informed consent, data privacy and security, digital infrastructure as well as training and buy-in from stakeholders at all levels of the implementation chain.

This article first appeared on The Economic Times: Digitisation: A potent lever for transforming the health system on October 25, 2021. The views expressed are personal.

About the Author

Urvashi Prasad

Urvashi Prasad is the Director, Development Monitoring & Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog.

YouTube Video: Urvashi Prasad | Addressing the GenderGaps in post pandemic world

Previous articleRBI’s Retail Direct: No Masterstroke, Just Breaststroke Outside the Water
Next articleWill the Glasgow Declaration Save the World’s Forests?
IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here