Managing a monsoon of medical data

Topics Digitisation

Our problem with the monsoon is the same that we are facing with data. We seek rains to parch our earth. When it does rain, we waste most of the water since we are unable to capture and harvest it adequately. 

India is facing a wonderful monsoon of data. Digitisation is creating thousands of sources of ever-flowing data. However, only a fraction of it is being utilised. While storage is a problem, a larger challenge is lack of standards and protocols. 

India is embarking on an important new project where data can be saved and used in the health sector. The National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) will be launched soon and will sharply change the way we create, store and share medical records. 

Currently, such records of patients are fragmented and stored by various private and government health care bodies. Primary health care centres in remote locations, and private and government hospitals keep records of patients and their diagnoses. While the large hospitals and clinics have created digital records, the smaller ones still store information on paper. However, even the large organisations use different templates for storing information. Most are not stored in any common protocol. Add to this the rise of online health care service providers as well as pharmacies. Each is evolving its own framework for saving data. 

The NDHM seeks to bring much of this under a common standard. It will have two distinct advantages. Firstly, health care organisations, policy makers and researchers will have access to data in a comparable format. They will be able to glean patterns and trends far more efficiently. Application of artificial intelligence and data analytics will help create predictive analysis models for various categories of patients and citizens. 

Secondly, it will empower people to have control over their information. Currently, most patients have to struggle to get their medical records of previous years. Many such records are lost at homes or in hospitals. X Ray scans for instance deteriorate over time if not stored properly. A digital storage system which creates unique identities can allow patients to save important information about themselves. 

Here there is much that India can learn from countries like Israel. The country offers universal health care to all its citizens through health care maintenance organisations (HMOs) that run hospitals, clinics and research institutes even while encouraging innovation by promoting incubators and accelerators embedded with them. From the time a child’s birth is recorded, a unique electronic data file is created. 

Over the years information is added with every visit to a health care provider. Even if the citizen changes doctors or clinics, the unique identity allows doctors a glimpse of the patient’s medical history. Israel’s four HMOs and their affiliated bodies have used data on the same electronics record platform for the last two decades, thus creating a huge wealth of medical information. Almost every citizen is registered with one of the four HMOs. Effectively, medical and related information about every citizen is available from cradle to grave. 

Privacy is paramount, of course. While each service provider will have access to the patient’s data as required, the information given to researchers and medical innovators will be anonymised. Pharmaceutical firms, medical devices makers, startups and entrepreneurs can use such anonymised data effectively.

India is already collaborating with Israel on fighting Covid pandemic. Lessons from the Israel HMO experience will be very valuable for India’s NDHM effort. Managing the health of a billion-plus people in the digital world will require Indian policymakers to think and plan for the next 50 years. Hopefully, we will not waste data as water is wasted in the monsoons. 

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