Piramal Swasthya, Rockefeller Foundation tie up for digital project to improve public health

Our Bureau Mumbai | Updated on December 18, 2019 Published on December 17, 2019

Project will use digital technology to reduce preventable deaths in aspirational districts and tribal areas

The Piramal Swasthya Management and Research Institute has formalised a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to support the Centre’s efforts towards Universal Health Coverage.

“We are looking at digital technologies including AI (artificial intelligence) to help improve public health outcomes across the country,” Dr Swati Piramal, Vice-Chairperson, Piramal Group, and Director, Piramal Swasthya, told BusinessLine on the partnership that builds on an existing alliance with the NITI Aayog for work in 25 aspirational districts. Piramal Swasthya is the primary healthcare initiative of the Piramal Foundation.

The Rockefellar Foundation partnership will leverage digital technology to reduce preventable deaths among mothers and children in the 25 districts and tribal areas. The project starts with five districts and will be scaled up subsequently.

Maternal, child mortality

“We are using maternal and child mortality as sentinel indicators of public health,” said Dr Naveen Rao, MD and Senior Vice-President, Health, with the Rockefeller Foundation. About 2,900 mother and child lives are lost every day, that’s equivalent to seven jumbo jets crashing, he said, adding that these are entirely preventable. A breakthrough from an insight gleaned from data will help leap-frog the problem, he said.

Outlining opportunities, he pointed to how farmers in Rajasthan benefited from commercial crop and farming data that was digital and available on their phones, while their wives who were community health workers “still live in the 19 century,” he said.

AI for cancer detection

Giving another example of where they have already seen the benefits of data-driven insights, Dr Piramal said they were using AI in a pilot project in Assam to detect breast cancer. Other projects in different parts of the country include identifying women with high-risk pregnancies, and in the area of diabetic retinopathy, said a representative with the organisation.

Dr Piramal also referred to a telemedicine project in Andhra Pradesh that helped bring down maternal mortality to zero over the years. The task is to multiply that across 25 other districts, she said.

Piramal Swasthya has also developed Amrit, a primary care digital platform that government organisations and health workers could, for instance, use to understand health trends, Dr Piramal said.

Arms-length approach

Responding to concerns on data ownership, privacy and conflict of interest, she said the data will be owned by the government. Dr Rao said the data will be anonymised.

On the arms-length needed between health projects and corporate involvement, Dr Piramal said there is no direct correlation with the project as the company had exited its domestic formulations business years ago and not selling medicines related to the project.

Dr Rao said the project is not time limited and that they are interested in looking at non-communicable diseases and mental health. But the partnership has started off with the most vulnerable segment, he added.

The present partnership looks to develop and test novel approaches for using digital technology, including mobile communications, predictive analytics, AI and machine learning, towards efficiently and effectively delivering primary healthcare services.

It will also assess how vital information on community health needs can be better collected and analysed through digital tools, so that the government and others can make informed, real-time decisions about targeting health resources, a note on the partnership said.

The Piramal Foundation has invested about $8 million annually in these initiatives, Dr Piramal said, adding that they work with other organisations to tap into their expertise.

The Rockerfellar Foundation had invested $ 1 million in the project, Dr Rao said.

The partnership focuses on five of the 25 Aspirational Districts mentored by NITI Aayog.

They are part of the 117 Aspirational Districts identified by the Indian government as having urgent health and development needs. Many residents of these districts are members of tribal populations, who have significantly worse health outcomes than non-tribal populations.

Maternal mortality rates in India are 122 deaths per 100,000 live births, while in the tribal communities it is even higher.

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Published on December 17, 2019
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