A Digital Health Journey

Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow Dr. Debanshu Roy works with the e-Health division of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to strategize the roadmap for digital health priorities.

Keeping up with changing times, the field of health care is undergoing a digital transformation across the world. Digitally enabled tools for diagnosis, treatment, management and monitoring are increasingly being adopted. In India, for instance, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) has launched various initiatives using information and communications technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the public health care delivery system.

Dr. Debanshu Roy is a consultant with its e-Health division through the University of Chicago International Innovation Corps social impact fellowship. After completing his MBBS from Grant Medical College, Mumbai, Dr. Roy went on to do his master’s in health economics and policy at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, as a Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow in 2015. 

Excerpts from an interview.

Could you tell us a little about e-health and its importance in the health care sector today?

Technology has made things faster, more personalized and less expensive. It is used across many fields--from program management to service delivery. Digital health is a broad field which includes technologies that range from medical devices to image analysis algorithms for CT and smart MRI scans. It also includes applications being used by frontline health workers like ANMOL (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife Online) as well as databases like the mother and child tracking system.

I currently work in a consulting capacity for the University of Chicago’s International Innovation Corps program, which is helping the e-Health division of the MoHFW to develop capacities by using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools already in its possession.

What is your take on digital health priorities?

MoHFW’s e-health team has just released the National Digital Health Blueprint. It provides an ecosystem approach for digital public health in the country. If done right, it will be a game-changer in the way health services are delivered and governed in India. Take, for example, the banking sector. Information is exchanged and transactions are done at speeds that were unimaginable earlier, with help of simple hardware. Imagine the same fluidity for health care data, which is currently scattered and underutilized. However, since health data involves sensitive personal data, we need to have legal structures for data privacy, consent and access protocols in place. The blueprint does a great job of laying out the digital landscape for these checks and balances as well.

The government of India is taking help of telemedicine to improve public health care. In what ways will it help?

Telemedicine is a very wide term which houses multiple interventions. Things can range from call-based services to remote surgeries. While it has its own place in the health ecosystem, the delivery is contextual and the economies, in terms of cost benefit, need to be kept in mind too before designing a program.

As a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow what was your experience at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston?

It was overall excellent. I got to work in one of the biggest health centers in the world--the Texas Medical Center. I cannot stress enough how fortunate I felt.

I made many friends and interacted with the local community, which helped me in more ways than I could think of. I also worked with the local church to deliver relief services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after the floods in 2016.

How has the experience helped you to incorporate your ideas on development and implementation of e-health initiatives back home?

Data collection and sorting is something which America does excellently. I have taken a leaf out of the lessons learned there to help build the data culture we have in India. Most of the data we have here is not arranged and it cannot be utilized well for governance or research. This is largely due to the lack of standards and guidelines wherein health care providers use diverse data storage and sharing templates and protocols; a very limited number are interoperable.

While looking to create health data sharing policies in the ministry, I still reach out to my professors at The University of Texas. The university has data sharing templates and it helps me understand how I can contextualize it for our work in India.

What is your road map ahead?

Currently, we are working at building data resilience with appropriate policies around patient privacy, security and consent and, at the same time, at building data techniques to make data usable. Based on India’s national digital health mission priorities, we should be able to propel the country ahead in the digital health journey.

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.

Disclaimer: This article was written in February 2020, before the Government of India's COVID-19 prevention measures were put in place.