PM Modi announced the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) this I-Day and a wave of hope for universal health coverage swept across the nation. It was welcomed more than the declarations on cybersecurity and optical fibre connectivity, for obvious reasons. Health and immunity are on top of every citizen’s minds since the nation is still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Indian government has envisioned NDHM as a digital health ecosystem that will encompass health identification, a health facility registry, individual health records and a pan India Digi Doctor network. Doctors can register themselves and provide contact details to Digi Doctor expressing their availability for services. They will get digital signatures for signing prescriptions.
Telemedicine and e-pharmacies are planned later on, with guidelines with framed at the moment. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) will oversee the National Digital Health Mission, with the National Health Authority (NHA) being the implementing agency. An app and a website are the immediate manifestations of the scheme.
Every citizen is expected to sign up online for a Health ID with a number that is uniquely assigned to him/ her. The Health ID is voluntary for all Indian citizens. This will be linked to personal health records, contact number and health data consent manager. The purpose of the consent manager is to ensure seamless flow of information from the records.
NDHM is a byproduct of the National Health Policy 2017. The goal of the ecosystem is to serve the needs of all stakeholders and improve linkages across healthcare providers. NHP 2017 proposes free drugs, diagnostics and emergency. Access and financial protection of patients in all public hospitals will be the end result. It’s an important step towards a comprehensive primary healthcare package. Although coronavirus disease has taken over the collective consciousness, there are major non-communicable diseases to consider apart from senior health, mental health and rehabilitative care services. This is where a system like NDHM will prove useful.
The policy is not ironclad, however. It does not consider ‘Health’ to be a right. There should be a push to making health a justiciable right. Data security of citizens is another concern. How safe is the health and personal information of patients from being sold or hacked and misused for profit?
The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has failed before and during the pandemic. What lessons can the NHS in India learn and incorporate into the NDHM before launching the mission? Although National Digital Health Mission is a central government scheme, it needs to align with state-specific healthcare schemes and other government programmes like Ayushman Bharat and NIKSHAY. There’s a long way to go before we can celebrate the achievement of universal healthcare.