On October 18, as part of its autumn 2023 seminar series on APEC in advance of the organization's meeting in San Francisco in November, Shorenstein APARC and its Asia Health Policy Program (AHPP) presented the series' second event, Asia-Pacific Digital Health Innovation: Technology, Trust, and the Role of APEC. The featured panelists were Kiran Gopal Vaska, Director of the National Health Authority of India, and CK Cheruvettolil, the Senior Strategy Officer, Digital Health and Artificial Intelligence, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Siyan Yi, the Director of the Integrated Research Program at the National University of Singapore and a former AHPP fellow, moderated the conversation.
While India is not an APEC member, Indian initiatives are examples of leveraging technology to better the health of the most vulnerable citizens in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Kiran Gopal Vaska gave an overview of the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM), India's latest health initiative that focuses on the interoperability of health records, services, and health claims. He stressed that ABDM was built on previous digital infrastructure, like Aadhaar, the national digital identity system, and Digilocker, a digital storage scheme for citizens' health and other records.
The approach India has taken is for the government to build the rails—the infrastructure of the system—and create a space where the private sector can develop applications integrated with that space through application programming interfaces (APIs), avoiding the siloing that can hamper the interoperability of data.
Regarding health data, privacy is a crucial concern at the patient level. ABDM addresses this concern through the use of a consent artifact. Individuals decide whether hospitals or other medical service providers have access to their data, and this access has levels of granularity: you can share specific portions of 7 different data types, like immunizations or prescriptions. You can limit that sharing to a particular period, like one day.
Also participating on the panel was CK Cheruvettolil, who discussed strategies by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in leveraging the power of mobile phones to augment the work of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), the more than one million female frontline health workers in India. ASHAs can use mobile phone cameras, sensors, and streaming data to better care for low-birth-weight babies and other patients.
He explained the critical role of taking local context into account when developing software by using the example of pregnant Indian women in their third trimesters. The custom for Indian mothers, especially in rural areas, is for the child to be born in the maternal grandparents' home. If software were to store only the mother's address, healthcare workers in the grandparents' jurisdiction would not know that a pregnant woman in the critical third trimester would soon be giving birth at a local address.
Kiran Gopal Vaska noted that India had solved the technological issues, and now the task was to push for adoption. He emphasized that the technologies underlying India's digital health stack were created as public goods for the world, and for LMICs to support each other in advancing digital health technologies, the key was interoperability, "using standards that are accessible and acceptable worldwide."