New Delhi: The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world by surprise, and healthcare systems across the world found themselves underprepared to effectively tackle such a challenge while simultaneously managing regular healthcare activities. Two years after the onset of the COVID-induced lockdown, India’s healthcare system is swiftly recovering with a progressive vision to advance the healthcare industry, train healthcare workers for future pandemics or adversities, and ensure quality and affordable medical care for all, informed healthcare experts at the second edition of the Economic Times Healthcare Leaders Summit 2022 organised by ETHealthworld.
Experts spoke at inaugural session on ‘Building back better: Reset to sustainable and resilient recovery post-pandemic’, which was moderated by Vikas Dandekar, Editor, ET Prime (Health and Pharma). The panellists for the discussion were Prof Dr Rajesh Gokhale, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India, Dr Harsh Mahajan, Founder, Mahajan Imaging, Prof K Srinath Reddy, President, PHFI and Upasana Arora, CEO & Director, Yashoda Super Speciality Hospitals.
Dandekar kickstarted the discussion by posing a question to Dr Reddy about his observations on the way the healthcare sector was managed in the last two years. Dr Reddy replied, “Though we knew that there was the danger of zoonotic pandemics, the systems were not fully prepared either to prevent or to quickly detect and control. India’s experience has not been unique in the sense that the health system felt challenged. Virtually every health system in the world felt challenged.”
Pointing out that the healthcare sector has been proactive in its approach, Dr Reddy said, “However it is a response recognition of the fault lines in the health system as well as the supportive social systems that has helped us to adopt several corrective measures, and we have seen that happening in terms of very strong emphasis on strengthening health infrastructure, strengthening digital health, and increasing investment in better surveillance systems.”
The panellists mutually agreed on the importance of affordable healthcare, the lack of which results in the decline of quality of service, and the increased burden to bridge this gap results in dislocating funds necessary for technological advancements, which further dampens quality and affordable care.
Speaking about the issue of overcharging by hospitals during the COVID-induced lockdown, Arora urged for the availability of quality yet affordable healthcare services, in a way that hospitals can also retain profits. “To maintain their quality, hospitals need to invest money. But hospitals should not run on a business model because a hospital is a place where we are dealing with human lives. There has to be a balance between affordability, quality care, and at the same time some profitability also,” said Arora.
Dr Mahajan then lauded India’s healthcare system for its attempt at lowering the cost of quality healthcare services, and said, “Today, India still provides quality healthcare at the cheapest price in the world and I don’t compare it to the West. We are 20-25 per cent cheaper than Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.”
Commenting on the impact of the pandemic on advancements in healthcare, Dr Mahajan said, “Digitisation, telehealth, telemedicine, home health, these are all the sectors which the pandemic has helped us leapfrog in, and cut down the time (required for advancements) by five to seven years.”
He further highlighted the importance of emphasis on advancing the diagnostics sector to reduce medical costs, since effective diagnosis can potentially cut down unnecessary or experimental treatments through targeted diagnostics. “What the pandemic has done is bring focus on preventive and predictive medicine and treatment. So wellness as a concept is gaining weight,” concluded Dr Mahajan.
During the discussion, Dandekar focused on the role of biotechnology and urged Prof Dr Gokhale to comment on the major changes that the Indian healthcare system needs to adopt.
Prof Dr Gokhale shed light on the subjective nature of health and fitness, and the importance of the healthcare sector to understand the same, to be better equipped at providing customised and targeted treatment. “Health is a very amorphous technology. For an athlete, if he is not able to run five kilometres, he may not be defined as a healthy person. For a person who has a predisposition to Huntington’s disease, but is healthy today, can we define him as a healthy person? So the government has to look at health from many perspectives. For the government, healthcare is a pandora’s box with a focus on many contextual things, which only technology can help tackle. That’s the role of the Department of Biotechnology, to be able to capitalise and make sure that India becomes a major player in the foundational technologies of the 21st century.”
The panel discussion concluded with the closing statements of all panellists. Dr Gokhale suggested that India’s healthcare system needs to shift gears from a reactive to a proactive mode. Dr Mahajan advised the growing need for adopting digitisation and developing digital systems that are specially designed to cater to the Indian masses. Arora urged the importance of taking care of oneself and routine preventive health checkups. Dr Reddy encouraged the continuing innovation in various sectors of healthcare but notified that it must be accessible and affordable for everybody, which is a critical element of Universal Healthcare.