Healthcare sector upgrades infra, taps tech solutions in covid battle


With covid-19 placing unprecedented pressure on India’s creaking healthcare system, the domestic industry has exhibited exemplary resilience in battling the pandemic by bringing about changes to traditional ways of healthcare delivery, besides innovating at a rapid pace to tackle the crisis.

India witnessed major changes in its healthcare infrastructure and functioning to deal with the highly infectious disease. The government was quick to adopt digitization of data with the launch of the much-awaited National Digital Health Mission, besides investing in research and innovation, and prodding health-tech startups to play an active role in facilitating healthcare delivery.

The Centre also relaxed regulations to allow telemedicine and e-pharmacy platforms offer doctor consultations to avoid crowding at hospitals during the pandemic. The innovative solutions offered by these platforms are now here to stay even in a post-covid world.

“Successful covid-19 management through digitization has shown that there may be a single platform for effective and efficient global and local public health management. Synergistic innovations in tracing, tracking, targeting, trending, tele-medicine and transport services in ‘real-time or near real-time’ cumulatively combined with our existing knowledge of past pandemics and networked with human expertise—all on one digital platform—is perhaps the one success model, that will be surely sustained and even scaled up beyond covid-19,” said Suresh Munuswamy, assistant professor, Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad.

The pandemic led to a massive rise in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in diagnosing covid-19 from chest X-Rays or CT scans. Validation and testing of such algorithms remained a challenge since it generally takes multi-departmental collaboration between clinicians, data scientists and engineers to conduct a validation study on AI. Research group CARING (Centre for Advanced Research in Imaging, Neurosciences and Genomics), which was incubated at diagnostics service providers Mahajan Imaging, used an automated technology platform called CARPL to validate algorithms used to diagnose covid-19. Government bodies used these technologies to help diagnose covid-19.

“Essentially, CARPL automated the running of an AI algorithm, the labelling of data for testing, and subsequent statistical metrics. Doctors can then interact with the AI algorithm to build an opinion about the performance of the AI by reviewing failed and successful cases,” said Vidur Mahajan, head of research, CARING.

“Overall, during the covid-19 pandemic CARPL quietly worked in the background, helping test AI algorithms, and giving radiologists and researchers across India an opportunity to quickly build, test and deploy algorithms for the service of the country. The technology will now be used for many other medical conditions,” he said.

The covid-19 pandemic also forced the central government-run hospitals to upgrade their infrastructure and find new ways to handle patients of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. “The kind of innovative healthcare infrastructure we have today was never there before. We now have separate areas for covid patients, but this is irreversible. These wards and separate areas will be used for other infectious diseases in the future,” said Jitendra Arora, director, Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana (PMSSY), Union health ministry.

India currently has more than 10 million persons infected with covid-19. With the increasing disease burden, the challenge was to expand testing numbers due to limited availability of reagents for diagnostic kits for covid-19. The RT-PCR kits were the gold standard for confirming coronavirus infections, and over-reliance on imports for procurement of kits and limited availability proved to be a significant bottleneck.

The Indian government quickly entered into a partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, an American private foundation, working on science, data, policy and innovation related to health, food, power and economic mobility. The foundation started work at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) to anchor the Indigenization of Diagnostics (InDx) programme for scaling up indigenous manufacturing of high-quality reagents, components and critical raw material. This project sought to address not only the covid-19 crisis but also to build sustainable solutions for the future by expanding high-quality, low-cost molecular diagnostics to improve the overall healthcare system for the long run.

“The amplitude of the crisis created by covid-19 has necessitated the identification of appropriate innovative solutions and ensuring its translation to scalable business models for sustainability, economic profitability, social capital or positive environmental outcome,” said Chandrajit Banerjee, director-general, Confederation of Indian Industry.

“The covid-19 crisis has created ample opportunities for creative disruption. While it has resulted in stimulating the interest in innovative solutions for health, it has also facilitated solutions for areas such as remote working, distance education, e-commerce, and mobility,” added Banerjee.