News & Analysis

Why is Healthcare Not Jumping on to the AI Bandwagon? 


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R N Chandra Shekhar

India’s healthcare system has been creaking under its own weight for decades now. Despite the presence of smart start-ups, the country hasn’t managed to create data collection and storage in the traditional EHR / EMR formats across the country. When something basic as data is missing how can the healthcare sector even hope to use artificial intelligence for medical interventions? 

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic where cases are growing exponentially and states are finding new loopholes each day using which patients are escaping quarantine, even utilising the much-touted Aadhar data to make contact tracing effective isn’t happening. Else, how could 3000 patients vanish without a trace after being identified as Covid-19 positive? 

However, that’s not all. At a time when most of the country is sitting at home waiting for the lockdown to end and business to re-start, our healthcare sector’s inadequacies have once again come to the fore. Forget the outreach of healthcare to remote places or even shortage of beds at hospitals. How can we condone the system’s over-dependence on imported APIs for most of the drugs that are under use in India? 

Maybe, it is time that Atma Nirbhar Bharat should start with healthcare. A news report published in the Economic Times spoke of blockchain startup BelfricsBT joining hands with YoSync (being incubated by IIITB, joined hands to develop a Covid-19 tracking blockchain platform. We learnt that this is currently being tested by some clinics. 

According to the report, the blockchain named BelYo uses BelfricsBT blockchain platform in order to convert Covid-19 related clinical and vaccination data of people into digital assets that can then be retrieved by contact tracing apps via APIs. Even individuals can get access to the data through a QR code scanning process. 

“Using its state-of-the-art multi- admin module layer, BelYo will be able to simplify the tracking of all the COVID-19 patients in India – from symptoms to vaccination certificate in a decentralized manner, without compromising the privacy of the data,” Prof. Sadagopan, Director of IIIT Bangalore is quoted as saying in the report while urging for more financial support.  

At a time when the federal government agencies are running around like headless chicken in their quest for solutions, it would do the top bureaucrats and their political masters good to take a 30000-feet view and locate inherent opportunities while leaving ground level fixes to the local administration, albeit with adequate central monitoring. 

Even in the case of this blockchain, India is hardly Atma Nirbhar, having had to rely on a global startup for the technology. Given the focus on preventive healthcare, the government should identify companies that require financial and technology support and push the envelope. The time for action is now and the first step should be using the pandemic as a reason to collect data from the public. 

And in this case, it should possibly ignore the naysayers as having medical records handy during a medical emergency is the first of few steps that can result in survival of the patient. 

In December 2019, Niti Aayog called for greater usage AI in the healthcare ecosystem. And this is where the government should be focusing now. And in case there are impediments to data sharing, they should step up and bring necessary legislation or changes to existing laws so that startups can look at multiple data sources – say from wearables to hospital records – to create new technology that assists real-time diagnosis and machine learning-based cures. 

The Lancet had suggested that as many as 2.4 million Indians die of treatable conditions each year. And we aren’t even talking about Covid-19 here. 



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