Digital medicine to be order of the day post-COVID, India poised to leapfrog: Dr Praveen Gedam, NHA [Interview]

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Updated: Jun 03, 2020 6:13 PM

In an interview with FE Online, Dr. Praveen Gedam, Addl. CEO, National Health Authority, shares how NHA is contributing to fight against coronavirus, the role NHA will play in post-COVID period, how long the coronavirus crisis will last and more:

Dr. Praveen Gedam, Addl. CEO, National Health AuthorityDr. Praveen Gedam, Addl. CEO, National Health Authority.

Coronavirus outbreak has disrupted lives across the country. The total number of COVD-19 cases in India, as of today, is 2,07,615. However, 1,00,303 of these have been cured or discharged while 5815 people have died. Experts believe that the battle against Coronavirus is not going to end soon. Hence the country, as well as the people need to be prepared. In the last three months of lockdown, National Health Authority (NHA), which is the nodal agency for implementation of Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana (AB-PMJAY), has played an important role in ensuring health facility to around 50 crore beneficiaries of the scheme. The scheme has also a special provision for workers who are migrating to their home states. In an interview with FE Online, Dr. Praveen Gedam, Addl. CEO, National Health Authority, shares how NHA is contributing to fight against coronavirus, the role NHA will play in post-COVID period, how long the coronavirus crisis will last and more:

1. How NHA is taking on the fight against COVID-19 during lockdown?

We at the National Health Authority (NHA) have undertaken a lot of measures and steps to strengthen our fight against COVID. For starters, I would like to highlight that packages for testing and treatment of COVID 19 have been developed and these are now available for free under the Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY scheme. The tests are being administered as per ICMR protocols in all empanelled hospitals in association with authorized labs and testing facilities.

As the battle against COVID continues, it is necessary to make more and more hospitals available for the treatment. Prior to the onset of this pandemic, NHA already had around 20,000 – 21,000 hospitals in its network—with COVID cases rising, NHA has initiated an express mode of empanelling even more hospitals. In order to facilitate this, we’ve quickly developed a special IT module and enabled state governments to provide temporary empanelment with relaxed criteria. I am happy to inform that in just one month we have added over 1000 hospitals of which, 750 are private to our network. This takes our tally beyond 22,000 overall, of which 10,000 + are private hospitals.

Furthermore, we have gone a step ahead and reached out to every single beneficiary enrolled under the scheme to 1) Educate them about the on-going pandemic and what measure they need to take to stay safe. 2) Sensitize high-risk beneficiaries (60+ years) on the precautions they need to take and to seek immediate help if they spot even the mildest of symptoms.

Apart from the ones mentioned above, NHA currently manages the national toll-free COVID helpline (#1075) and the PMJAY helpline (#14555).

We also support the government by providing teleconsultation services for suspect cases as per entries made by various users on the Arogya Setu app.

2. What has been the impact of those measures?

As of now, most of the state governments are predominantly banking on public health facilities to provide treatment to COVID-19 cases and these are free of cost. NHA has taken several steps to increase private hospital participation as well. In the event that state facilities run out of capacity in particular districts/cities due to the rising COVID numbers, private hospital participation will be a boon. Currently, we have tested and treated thousands of cases under PM-JAY.

Further, with many hospitals getting converted into COVID-19 ‘only’ hospitals (or blocks), Ayushman Bharat is working on providing accessible public and private health facilities to poor and downtrodden patients for non-COVID-19 cases as well.

The call centre is receiving and making over 50,000 to 60,000 calls per day answering various queries pertaining to both COVID-19 and PM-JAY. We are also escalating some of these calls to state governments for emergency response or to doctors for medical consultation.

3. Hoping that we finally manage to win this battle against Coronavirus, what would be the role NHA/PMJAY may play in a post-COVID India?

A Post-COVID world would be more digital—Digital medicine or telemedicine is going to be the order of the day. While inpatient care wherever required will continue to be in the hospital, digital medicine platforms shall reduce the requirement of physically travelling at least for a preliminary consultation and follow up in many cases. This shall be of immense use for the patients in far-flung areas. With India’s capabilities in IT, connectivity, and healthcare, we are poised for leapfrog in this sector. We must capitalize on this opportunity and NHA has started taking steps in this direction in order to provide such facilities in the near future. This will be useful to achieve a ‘continuum of care’.

4. With migrant workers and their welfare being one of the biggest concerns in the country right now, could you please shed some light on what NHA is doing for the migrant workers?

Migrant workers leave their rural hometowns and move to cities for work. They do this so that they can look after their loved ones back home. With Ayushman Bharat, one of the biggest advantages is ‘portability’. ‘Portability’ is the innovative feature of this scheme, which allows patient from any state to be treated in the hospital of any other state while the payment is still made through a strong IT system by the patient’s home state. Therefore, even if migrants may be moving to any place, PM-JAY beneficiary migrants can avail the facility of free and cashless COVID-19 testing and inpatient treatment for any disease in any of the 22, 000 + hospitals in India. Of course, they can seek guidance and help from our call centre as well.

5. What is your view on privatization in healthcare sector?

Without going into policy calls whether the health sector should be private or public, I would like to state that as of now, we have to take the private sector along with us to supplement the efforts being done through the public sector. This is particularly necessary where public health infrastructure may not be adequate. To aid the country battle the current crisis, Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY has already onboarded 10, 000+ private hospitals in the country.

PM-JAY has provided health cover to around 54 Crore poor and vulnerable persons in India. This segment of the population was hitherto not in a position to seek healthcare from private sector due to financial constraints. With this scheme, now there is a sudden ‘demand shock’ in the market and I am happy to note that the private sector has been responding with additional ‘supply’ and ramping up its capacities. One may also note that in this year’s budget, Hon’ble Finance Minister has announced VGF for setting hospitals in PPP mode, particularly in aspirational districts.

In the near future, the public and private sector should work hand-in-hand and in a complementary fashion so that the best possible healthcare is available to our citizens.

6. Where do you think India is now in terms of our battle against COVID-19? How long it will take to return to the normal?

India like every other country in the world is doing its best to combat this disease, considering we are the second-most populous country in the world, the ratio of cases to the population is fairly low. I have said this before and I am going to reiterate it here—biology is not like mathematics, where the answers are simple and direct. In math, one plus one is always two. It cannot be any other way. But, in biology or medical science, there are a lot of complex permutations and combinations of various factors that come into play. The situation can change overnight. For example we are trying to contain the spread of the virus via lockdown and opening up in a phased manner… however, if people whether one or a handful of them violate the laid rules, it can drastically change the scenario.

Honestly, for me, it is hard to predict a timeline or how COVID will progress or when we will return to normal. We need to work in an organized manner together to flatten the curve. We have successfully done it so far, and let us continue to work together in that direction.

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