The Way Forward For India's Healthcare

A serial entrepreneur, Harjiv is also the Founder of BrainGain Global, a Trustee of The Loomba Foundation, and a member of the US Advisory Council of The American India Foundation(AIF).

Few events in recent history can match the overarching and overwhelming impact of COVID-19. In its disruption of the world, the pandemic has revealed glaring pitfalls in our support systems. Healthcare has been the worst hit. Several nations have been battling acute shortages of personal protective equipment, life saving drugs, oxygen, hospital beds and healthcare personnel.

In India, an aggressive second wave fuelled by the Delta variant crippled the country's healthcare system, leaving countless citizens scrambling for hospital beds and oxygen on their own. Thousands of deaths have been attributed to the lack of timely medical aid. India's second wave has been a wake-up call to revamp our healthcare system. Digital technology can equip us with the tools to upgrade healthcare. But before this, it is crucial to scale up our basic infrastructure.

We need a robust technology framework that can efficiently store, process and manage health records digitally

Increasing Healthcare Investment
Greater public investment is needed for scaling up health infrastructure to improve the availability of services. Unfortunately, public healthcare investment in India has consistently been one of the lowest in the world. According to the World Health Organisation, India ranks 184th out of 191 countries in terms of health By Harjiv Singh, Director, Global PPE MartIN MY OPINION THE WAY FORWARD FOR INDIA'S HEALTHCARE A serial entrepreneur, Harjiv is also the Founder of BrainGain Global, a Trustee of The Loomba Foundation, and a member of the US Advisory Council of The American India Foundation (AIF). Harjiv Singh spending. For 15 years, the share of India's gross domestic product spent on healthcare hovered around one percent. In the Union Budget for 2020-21, the government allocated 1.8 percent of the country's GDP to healthcare. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it increased to around three percent.

Yet, it remains significantly lower than most countries. The United Kingdom, for instance, spends 12.8 percent of its GDP on health. The US spends more than 16 percent. Japan, Germany and Canada spend more than 10 percent. India's healthcare spend is also lower than its peer nations in the OECD and BRICS, as the Confederation of Indian Industry pointed out earlier this year. On the ground, this is reflected in a dire shortage of healthcare professionals and hospital beds. India has one doctor per 1,445 people, 1.7 nurses per 1,000 people and 1.4 beds per 1,000 people. Ramping-up our resources demands greater public investment in healthcare.

Leveraging India's Strengths
Increasing public spending on healthcare can improve the availability of services. Ensuring affordability is the next step. Fortunately, this is one of India's greatest strengths. Our pharmaceutical industry has demonstrated an impressive potential to provide medicine at affordable rates to large demographics. The cost of production is 33 percent lower than that of the US while labour costs are 50-55 percent less than in Western nations. Increasingly called the 'pharmacy of the world', India is the third largest producer of pharmaceutical products in the world by volume and 14th largest in terms of value. India also supplies 62 percent of the world's vaccines and 40 percent and 25 percent of the generic drugs in the US and UK, respectively. Enhancing our existing system can improve affordability further.

With availability and afford ability in place, technology can enter the picture. We need a robust technology framework that can efficiently store, process and manage health records digitally. This can make them more accessible and improve the delivery of health services. Such a framework can be modeled along the lines of IndiaStack, an ongoing project to build India's digital infrastructure to enable presence less, paperless and cashless service delivery. Digitizing health records makes it possible to collect data right from the district level to the national level. Technology can also play a part in creating awareness campaigns about diseases. Given the many uncertainties around COVID-19 and vaccination, for instance, effective online campaigns can curb the spread of misinformation and encourage more citizens to get themselves vaccinated.

Additionally, India also has a burgeoning HealthTech ecosystem. Over the past year, several startups have created a variety of tech driven solutions that can support citizens and governments in managing the pandemic. Their innovation includes contact tracing apps, AI and IoT-driven thermal scanners, e-pharmacies and online consulting, among others. One of the best examples of digital startups we saw in the last year was Project StepOne, which brought together 7,000 doctors across India using their expertise. Leveraging technology, it created a volunteer based COVID helpline across India, answering over 30,000 calls daily to help patients navigate through the pandemic. Project StepOne also advised 18 state governments on their response to the pandemic. Such solutions can continue to have immense applications in a post COVID world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the stark inadequacies in our healthcare system. There is an urgent need to expand infrastructure to ensure timely medical care for all. Once this is achieved, we can leverage our capabilities to provide affordable medicine and our rapidly expanding digital infrastructure to improve our healthcare system.