“COVID-19 pandemic has created a new world reality”

In an exclusive interaction with the BioVoice, Dr Rishi Bhatnagar, President, Aeris Communications, and Chairperson of The Institution of Engineering and Technology - IoT panel talked about various aspects of dealing with pandemic including the role of technology and communication


The COVID-19 crisis has made us realize that health space is one of the most promised spaces in our country. With the advancement in technology and accessibility of data, the quality and efficiency of care for the patients has increased manifolds, mentioned Dr Rishi Bhatnagar, President, Aeris Communications, and Chairperson of The Institution of Engineering and Technology – IoT panel for India in an exclusive interaction with the BioVoice.

Mr Bhatnagar is a member of the NASSCOM Smart Cities Task Force –a premier organization that represents and sets the tone for public policy for the Indian software industry and smart cities. He is also a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Core Group on the Internet of Things and a member of the Telecommunication Engineering Centre (TEC), Government of India for framing Standards and Guidelines for Machine to Machine in India.

Here in this detailed ‘Chat with BioVoice’, he talks about how technology in the healthcare sector has emerged as a rescuer and much more. Happy reading!

How do you view the COVID-19 pandemic scenario in the Indian context?

Covid-19 pandemic has created a new world reality – globally, 110+ countries are fighting a war with an invisible bio organism as an enemy which collectively weighs less than a gram! Exacerbated by Globalisation and ease in international travel, the novel coronavirus only took a few days to spread from China and engulf every major city in Europe, USA, Asia, MEA and APAC regions. The world picture is quite gloomy on societal, economic and even on the psychological front, and, India is no exception.

However, its worth mentioning that while most of the countries were startled at the outbreak of Covid-19 and took time to react, the Indian Government understood the gravity of the situation learning from the havoc this novel virus created in China and Italy and took very strong measures for prevention and nationwide spread.

The government of India is taking all necessary steps to ensure that the whole country is well prepared to face the challenge and threat posed by the growing pandemic of COVID-19. Centre’s decision to impose nationwide lockdown on 1.3 billion citizens and furthering its extension for flattening India’s virus spread curve was tough on the economy, but essential. It has not only helped in slowing the rise in the number of cases in this densely populated country but, has also eased the unimaginable stress on healthcare infrastructure and resources which unfortunately is not as sophisticated as developed nations. The government invested heavily in creating corona testing and isolation centers and increased the testing with 10 lakhs tests already completed nationwide. The most important factor in preventing the spread of the Covid-19 locally is to empower the citizens with the right information and to this effect, a regular advisory is being issued by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.

How prepared is our healthcare set up? Are we doing enough in terms of tackling the situation and preparation for future eventualities?

Our population dividend is both a boon and a bane and healthcare as a sector has never been as sophisticated as desired even before the Covid-19 crisis emerged. While we struggle with the skewness of professionally qualified doctors to patient ration as per the WHO standards, we are yet to get a healthy ratio of availability of trained medical professionals in rural and remote parts of the country.

However, the use of technology in the healthcare sector has emerged as a rescuer. We are witnessing an interesting trend emerging in the fight against Covid-19 in the country with the accelerated rate of adoption of technology by healthcare service providers. Technologies like the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Online Streaming, Video Conferencing, Robotics, Drone technologies, etc. have gained a widespread momentum in the healthcare space.

The Indian government has undertaken a lot of progressive initiatives to accelerate digitization in healthcare. NITI Aayog launched the National Health Stack (NHS) which is a virtual digital platform for healthcare in the country. I am happy to see the recent framework drafted by the Indian government which has buoyed the use of telemedicine solutions to fight the novel coronavirus. On March 26, 2020, the health ministry issued telemedicine guidelines enabling doctors to write prescriptions based on telephone conversations that reduce risks of transmission for medical professionals as well as patients. Virtual visits enabled through telemedicine are proving very effective and helpful as physical consultation and OPDs have been canceled in almost all hospitals and now replaced with tele calling, video consultations, and doctor on-demand services.

While a lot of initiatives are being taken by both the government and private sectors, a lot more is required to cater to the healthcare needs of a country with a 1.3 billion population! This crisis has brought more clarity to the health-tech space of India. It can be anticipated that online pharmacy, medicine technology, medical devices, and healthcare data & analytics can flourish even if this virus subdues.

As we move ahead, what are the key challenges before stakeholders and how can we overcome these?

The quality and effectiveness of care increase exponentially when doctors and nurses have access to more data and its accuracy. Telemedicine and other digital technologies can help healthcare sector manifold. It has the ability to provide a comprehensive framework for applications, mode of communication, medical ethics, data security and confidentiality, document requirements, fees, process, drug list, technological platforms, and more. However, we do face certain challenges. While the millennials are tech-savvy, Indian medical professionals, especially, the more experienced senior doctors by large are not computer savvy, virtually lack awareness and exposure with regard to the application of information and communication technology in Medicine. Investments in training and augmented technology skilling of medical professionals right at the graduation level is essential. In addition, data privacy and cybersecurity are major concerns with everything moving to the cyber world.

How can technology and healthcare work together to fight Coronavirus?   

The Covid-19 crisis has made us realize that health space is one of the most promised spaces in our country. With the advancement in technology and accessibility of data, the quality and efficiency of care for the patients has increased manifolds.

And we have live examples of how both the sectors- technology and healthcare are working together to fight Coronavirus. India’s Aarogya Setu app developed by the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and IT has become the world’s highest downloaded app in just 13 days of launch with 50 million users. The application tracks Covid-19 cases around and helps in fighting the virus on an individual level. Drones are replacing sanitation workers for the sanitization of infected clusters. Hospitals running smart and connected ambulances for immediate medical attention. Humanoid/robots are being deployed at a hospital entrance for contactless patient screening and segregation of critical cases from non-critical cases. These robots are seen interacting with patients, taking their temperature, and completing patient registration while bringing doctors on-screen through teleconference. For pro-active testing for COVID-19, Practo, a digital healthcare platform in India has announced a partnership with Thyrocare for booking COVID-19 testing online. In partnership with the State governments, many leading private hospitals are already running telemedicine centers that focus on improving rural health care and awareness programs.

What role would the communication play in driving awareness on social distancing and other precautions? Is this working in India?

Fortunately, with the advancements in technology, communicating in today’s time has become easier. However, during the time of any crisis, a very clear and trustworthy risk communication channel needs to be established to dispel fake news resulting in chaos, panic, and fear among citizens.

The most important factor in preventing the spread of this virus in the community is to empower the citizens with the right information and taking precautions as per the advisories being issued by the Ministry. To this effect, the Indian government has launched a dedicated portal on Covid-19 at the MyGov platform and providing access to all information on a single dashboard. MyGov has been successful in bringing the government closer to the common man during this crisis for combating the Covid-19 together by creating an interface for a healthy exchange of ideas and views from citizens and experts.

Prime Minister of India has also made sure to address the nation from time to time so that people adhere to the safety norms and contribute to making the situation better. Also, many industry associations and research bodies are coming upfront to share their insights and findings of many surveys they have done during this pandemic. Essential service providers, especially police are driving awareness campaigns in addition to managing law and order situations.  People are taking the social media route to make their fellow peers aware of the severity of the ongoing situation. So far, the measures taken have helped to containment the community spread, which indeed is a great achievement for a country with a billion-plus population.

Do you see any end to this pandemic soon? What route is the best one to defeat it sooner-vaccine, lockdown, or drugs for treatment?

Covid-19 crisis has shaken up the world and it is comparable only to perhaps the Spanish flu in 1918. It has taught mankind to live with the ‘New Normal’ of lockdowns, social distancing, self-isolation, and work from home. I can only say that until we have a vaccination in the market as an over-the-counter drug, we have no choice but to live with this novel coronavirus. Fortunately, due to technology and innovation, remotely managing work is not the biggest concern. However, to normalize the situation, we all need to work together patiently and adopt new ways to deal with the crisis situation. It is essential that we keep a positive outlook and do exercise and meditation to keep our body and mind fit. It is also the time for introspection and to work on improving our relationships. Best is to utilize this time to build both technical and soft skills which would add value to both professional and personal life.