NEW DELHI :
India’s healthcare industry continues to witness mergers and acquisitions among large hospital operators, but the biggest of them, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd, is scouting for none. The aim now is to keep patients first as the group strives to deliver the best patient care, says Sangita Reddy, managing director of the hospital chain with a capacity of 10,000 beds. Electronic health records, drones and novel IT initiatives are accelerating innovation and transforming healthcare at Apollo, Reddy said in an interview. Edited excerpts:
Q: A lot of activity has been seen in the healthcare space with many hospital chains looking to acquire large hospitals. Why is Apollo never been seen in this race?
India has a shortage of over 70,000 hospital beds; the chairman in the Apollo group (Prathap C. Reddy) is committed to improving the healthcare of the country. So, you don’t improve the healthcare of the country by doing financial deals; any money we take we put up a new bed and that will add to the service of the country. By buying a hospital or acquiring it, you are cutting short the cycle. We bought a hospital in Guwahati, we are adding 150 beds to that infrastructure; we bought into a hospital in Indore, Lucknow... So we do, but we don’t do acquisition and mergers of advanced hospital systems because there is no win-win for the public. We add beds so we can serve more people. Fortis is serving, it’s a good thing…Let them serve. In the culture of an advanced hospital, we are very different, they are culturally very different and we can’t maintain the same ethos of service that we have because our ideology is very different.
So we will not see more Apollos in times to come?
I think what you will see is our ability to serve and care for more and more patients. Whether we do that through adding beds or adding clinics or doing more preventive care, we will continue to serve, we will stay committed to bringing advanced care.
Apollo was in news for being in search for a foreign investor to offload some debt; is it true?
No; there is nothing.
With Artificial Intelligence becoming a crucial part in clinical practice, do you think its impact on patients needs to be better understood?
In September, we have a conferences on themes like international patient safety conference and transforming healthcare with IT. While we are focused on safety, the whole idea is provisioning of care, then it’s quality of care... In the pursuit of quality, it became quite visible that safety is a very important aspect. It is estimated that one in 10 patients anywhere in the world including developing countries have some incidence of unsafe care and 420 million people are hospitalized. So, that means 42 million people are suffering from some kind of adverse event. All associations of hospitals and healthcare have come together to fight hospital-acquired infections, unsafe surgeries, unsafe injections, wrong medication, wrong dosage of medication, antibiotic misuse.. A range of things.
Does technology upgradation also jack up hospitalisation charges?
In the Indian context, it is a really good question, but let me give you two-three angles. People typically think of cost of care, they take a certain procedure and analyse that procedure; for example, in case of a gall stone surgery, it may be free for some patients in a government hospital, may cost ₹5,000-20,000 in a government set-up, may cost ₹35,000 in a nursing home and may cost up to ₹75,000 in Apollo, but the infection rate, the pain to the patient is much low. I think more importantly, it’s not just comparing these two costs but comparing the way you get the procedure done; so I think 60% if not more of India can afford ₹10,000 for health insurance; if you spend ₹10,000 for health insurance, they will pay your ₹70,000 bill when you need it.
But it’s not easy. Getting an insurance company to pay for your hospital bills is a difficult task?
There is a need for simplification of insurance procedure because there is no way that public can afford advanced healthcare by paying out of pocket. There is no country in the world where good healthcare is paid for out of pocket.
Since we are talking about insurance, what do you think about the government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme?
It is an incredible, bold and appropriate move by the government. In fact, Apollo has been saying for 20 years about Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Even in the US, you have MediCare and MedicAid, which is the government-funded social security system for healthcare. And then, there is private insurance for people who do no fall under that bracket but the point is that if people cannot afford to pay out of pocket for healthcare, they should never be asked to pay out of pocket. The 5% of people who get sick, their cost should be borne by the 95% people who do not have a procedure that year. And when you keep on paying every year, more than 60% of India can afford health insurance premiums. The current coverage is under 20%. So, India should create an awareness, simplify the procedure. You should get an insurance claim approved in three minutes like your credit card. It should be as simple as that; that’s what we should push for, but to say that a hospitals should reduce the price because insurance is difficult is not a long-term solution.
In the age of AI and electronic health records, there is also a worry of systems getting hacked. How do you ensure that the patient’s privacy is not compromised?
This is a super question but do you stop doing mobile banking because your credit card may be hacked? You depend on someone to create appropriate fire walls and protocols so that your data is safe; same thing is what we have to insist in Indian healthcare, which is what we are doing in National Digital Health Policy -- standards for maintaining data. We should not shy away from going digital in healthcare because we are worried about our data. We should find ways to keep our data safe; this is the way of the future and healthcare should not be left behind.