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Unified Health Interface will be operational this week, says NHA CEO RS Sharma

Sharma also discussed incentivising medical workers, engaging startups, and working as a facilitator at an IAMAI event.

“Unified Health Interface (UHI) will be going live this week. We are inviting the entire community to give comments,” Dr. RS Sharma, CEO, National Health Authority (NHA), said in response to a question at the India Digital Summit organised by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). He was speaking in a session on ‘Data, Digital, and Public Healthcare Delivery’ that was moderated by Prashant Tandon, CEO of Tata 1mg.

Sharma revealed that the digitisation of health records is one of the challenges looming over the successful rollout of UHI. “It takes time to change our habits when we are used to writing on a piece of paper. We will have to provide a number of tools to make it easy for doctors to go digital under this new system,” he said.

What is UHI? UHI is a part of the NHA’s National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) which was launched in August 2020 and includes other components like the Healthcare Professionals Registry, Health Facility Registry, Unique Health ID, National Digital Health Blueprint, and so on. The interface is proposed to follow an Open Network Protocol to dispense digital health services based on shared technical standards which will allow health services providers as well as patients to use one platform.

UHI is based on the principle of interoperability, along the lines of UPI (Unified Payments Interface) which has altered the payments landscape. UHI is touted to have a similar impact on the healthcare system. However, several privacy experts and activists have raised concerns about the possibilities of cyberattacks, surveillance, profiling, as well as exclusionary consequences of such a system.

Key takeaways from RS Sharma’s interview

Digital token for consent: “Privacy is not a zero-sum game. One of the systems which India has designed, which is very unique, is the consent artifact. You can give digital consent— a digital token that cannot be replicated. The token ensures that the consent is coming from you, and anybody who has got that token has your permission to do what is mentioned in the token. Privacy is preserved through this system. A project must incorporate federated architecture in which data is not consolidated or aggregated in one place as it becomes a single point of failure. Such architecture is being put in place,” Dr. Sharma said.

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Bringing doctors on board: “We have to provide a value proposition to each stakeholder whether it’s a doctor, a lab, a patient, or a hospital. We have to carefully communicate, and implement things in a manner so that it is for everybody. The project is a bigger challenge than UPI because its regulatory approach is not going to work here. It is going to be an incentive-driven approach. I am not talking about financial incentives. I am talking of incentives where people feel that they are doing this for the benefit of the country and their own selves,” he said.

Information database to engage startups in UHI: “UHI is merely a set of protocols. It is going to create a language of health services delivery. API publishing, therefore, is very fundamental. It is not an afterthought. It will inform you about the method of communication, the ways in which disparate systems can communicate with each other. We have a sandbox environment and hackathons. We will invite innovators and startups to try out their systems in our sandbox,” he explained.

NHA will play the role of a facilitator: “NHA will engage with startups. We are already doing it. We will work like a facilitator to startups because healthcare delivery is our area ultimately. I’m not saying that we are going to decide the regulations per se. The regulators are much more knowledgeable about their own sectors and they will decide but we will certainly help our startups navigate these routes,” Dr. Sharma said.

Will digital healthcare have an adverse impact on quality and access?

Dr. RS Sharma said that the digital infrastructure works as an enabler for the delivery of healthcare services.

“Nothing is going to change. The patient is going to remain the same, the doctor is going to remain the same, the prescriptions will be the same. It is going to improve all three parameters of delivery— access, affordability, and quality. We can use the communication infrastructure to reach the villages as you can organise digital consultations in remote rural areas. It also improves affordability because the patient doesn’t have to travel, they don’t have to book dharmashalas and hire transport to reach the clinic,” he replied.

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I cover several beats such as Crypto, Telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I can be found loitering at my local theatre when I am off work consuming movies by the dozen.

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