Our data is constantly being collected and harvested—a breach of privacy most recently uncovered through political plots. One can’t Google a product or service without it showing up later, baiting you through advertisements and sponsored posts. I understand why the idea of data being stored insidiously has become a scary, almost dystopic thought. But I’ve always felt is that one sector underutilizes data and for the worst possible reason.
There is no doubt that healthcare data saves lives. So why, in India, won’t we move past our medieval paper documents rotting in storerooms and onto a system that is designed to track and store our health details?
Why make the effort of changing the whole system? Simple—healthcare is not a one-time thing. Chances are, over the span of your life, you will visit several different doctors for several different concerns. And without data, we’re picking up at the start, every single time, and it is completely inefficient. It exposes doctors to inadvertent mistakes, issuing the wrong medication, requesting the wrong test(s) and a litany of such errors. Worst still, it endangers patients as well. They cannot be expected to remember every ailment or test or wellness routine prescribed to them. That forgetfulness leads to one of healthcare’s biggest problems, that of cost inefficiency. Unknowing of the fact that a test has previously been conducted, a physician will re-recommend it because of lack of hindsight or prescribe a medicine that conflicts with another one.
Beyond providing the obvious advantage of hindsight, electronic health records also hand us foresight. By examining each health up and down and the resulting patterns, we can use predictive analytics to actually taper down the number of ER patient visits.
Lack of digitization has contributed to one of our greatest national challenges—lack of health insurance and underinsurance. Underwriting is the bedrock of this entire business. Insurance companies need reliable data on diseases, patients, drugs, and tests to come up with a sensible rational pricing policy. The problem in India is that the data is suspect and thus leads to faulty analytics driving up costs across the entire insurance chain. This creates under-penetration across large swathes of the population. My fear with regard to Modicare is that while the objective is laudable, the implementation will be a nightmare due to lack of ground-level data.
The pros are immeasurable but put simply, data is important because it ensures quality, safety, and efficacy in the medical system, all the while reducing costs. But we still need to be wary, because data can easily be hijacked. Preventing security breaches and fraud is crucial. To this end, we must ensure that data stays open—it should not be restricted to silos or hidden. Secondly, there is a need to standardize especially in India because each institution decides its own baseline, making it impossible to measure quality or implement mobility. Lastly, it needs to be third-party approved, verifiable data. Good data is reproducible data.
If we could extend digitization to hospitals and pharmaceutical companies as well, we could really fine-tune costs to put money where it’s needed. We could craft a whole new approach and depart from the carpet-bombing technique currently employed. This is money that needs to be saved because the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) suggests that between 2000-2014, while the GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP) grew by 121%, the average medical expenditure grew by 176%. That’s almost 60 percentage points more. Switching to a digital set-up will enable uniform, enhanced, and smarter access and most importantly save money across the ecosystem, projected to be as high $400 billion annually.
Our healthcare system desperately needs to keep up. The next wave of artificial intelligence-led disruptions are taking off in the healthcare space. Data is crucial for this next phase. Let us not lose out due to our lack of uniformity. It’s time for a national platform for unbiased healthcare information, blind by design to make sure it is not used to prejudice against select patients or groups.
Amit Varma is co-founder of Quadria Capital, one of Asia’s largest healthcare private equity firms.