India hopes digital health ID can help boost economy by Bloomberg

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(Bloomberg) – A $ 23 million program providing digital health identification to every citizen could support India’s economic growth amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the head of the country’s health authority.

The National Digital Health Mission, which aims to create a repository of physicians and healthcare facilities across India – in addition to digitizing citizens’ health records – will result in cost savings and better economic outcomes, Indu Bhushan, CEO of the National Health Authority, said in an interview.

Big data analysis on health “will lead to better planning, budgeting and implementation for states and health programs, which should be a great cost optimizer,” said Bhushan, who compared the gains produced by the “new digital highway” to those in construction. physical infrastructure such as roads.

India is Asia’s third-largest economy, but its total health spending is only about 3.5% of gross domestic product – among the lowest rates in the world, according to World Bank data. Efforts to contain the world‘s second-highest number of Covid-19 infections are straining government coffers, as the economy heads for its first contraction in a full year in four decades.

The implementation of the digital health plan will increase productivity and lead to an additional $ 250 billion benefit to India’s GDP over the next 10 years, according to a recent report by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Indian industry and the Boston Consulting Group.

About 60 million Indians are pushed into poverty each year because of health care costs, 60% of which are out of pocket. This imposes “substantial constraints on the country’s individual well-being and economic growth,” said Bhushan, a bureaucrat-turned-economist who worked at the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

He expects that number to decline with the implementation of digital services, which can help diagnose conditions early and eliminate unskilled healthcare workers.

Connectivity and privacy

The Indian government is among the most aggressive in the world in digitizing the identity of its citizens, hoping to reduce crippling inefficiencies and pave the way for future digital innovations. But privacy advocates have warned of the dangers of potential leaks of sensitive information, and linking and downloading health records in particular carries significant risks.

The program, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August, is voluntary and is currently being tested in six regions administered by the federal government. However, with only about half of India’s 1.3 billion people on the Internet and users often experiencing poor connectivity, a nationwide rollout could be difficult. Internet or computers would be a luxury in many rural health centers which lack electricity, running water and toilets.

Recognizing these barriers, the government is designing offline systems to reach unconnected and “digitally illiterate” people in remote areas, Bhushan said. Regarding concerns about privacy and state surveillance, Bhushan said the data would be stored securely in the government community’s cloud, “with strong checks and balances to prevent misuse.”

The digitization movement builds on Modi’s National Health Insurance Program, launched in 2018 to provide basic coverage for the first time to 500 million of India’s poorest citizens. But the pandemic has laid bare the country’s creaky health infrastructure.

The epidemic makes “all the more important the establishment of digital systems to scale up and improve health care,” Bhushan said. “There could have been invaluable implications for identifying hot spots, tracing, treating, identifying pre-existing conditions and risks, and research that could have had a fundamental impact on our response to the pandemic. “

(Corrects the poverty data in the sixth paragraph of the article published Wednesday.)

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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