Ahead of the upcoming election of the 18th Lok Sabha (lower house of India’s bicameral parliamentary), Nirmala Sitharaman, union minister of Finance, announced the government’s interim 2024-2025 budget.

India plans to spend a provisional sum of Rs 90,171 crore ($10.8 billion) for healthcare in the coming fiscal year, increasing from Rs 79,221 crore ($9.5 billion) previously. Some of it will go to the following key projects:

  • extension of the health assurance scheme, Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, to include 1.5 million community health workers called ASHA (accredited social health activist) and rural child care (Anganwadi) workers and helpers

  • establishment of more medical and nursing colleges to help address the shortage of medical professionals

  • the nationwide rollout of the U-WIN immunisation management platform and vaccination campaign to prevent cervical cancer among girls aged 9-14, which both contribute to Mission Indradhanush’s goal of reaching 90% vaccination coverage of Indian children

  • improved nutrition and better services by upgrading Anganwadi centres 

  • increased budget for biotechnology R&D to Rs 1,100 crore ($132.5 million) from Rs 500 crore ($60.2 million) in the previous year

Meanwhile, the Rs 1 trillion ($12 billion) budget for states providing up to 50-year interest-free loans to support research and innovation in so-called “sunrise sectors,” including healthcare technology, is “commendable,” said Apollo Hospitals chairman Dr Prathap C. Reddy. In a statement sent to Healthcare IT News, he also urged the government to “consider increasing the tax exemption for preventive healthcare” amid the growing cases of non-communicable diseases.

“[U]nless India heightens its focus on innovation and research, as a nation we will not be able to overcome the looming disease burden such as the alarming increase in [antimicrobial resistance] and undetected heart disease and cancers. Innovative solutions to make healthcare accessible and affordable [are] truly the need of the hour.”

Dr Reddy also believes that India will emerge as a “beacon for global workforce development” given its emphasis on training and upskilling. “I welcome the strategy to augment medical education by capitalising on existing hospital infrastructures. In doing so, we are not only paving the way for an increased number of medical and nursing colleges but also enhancing the capacity for para-medical training.”

While the government’s seeming focus on health research, infrastructure, and accessibility will create “exciting opportunities for progress,” Rustom Lawyer, CEO and founder of Augnito, noted the uncertainty from the “absence of concrete AI plans [in healthcare].”

“Perhaps these will be addressed in the July budget, but the focus on ‘deep tech for defence’ suggests [that] the government recognises the strategic importance of such technologies,” he said with optimism. He is also positive that the official budget by July will present “a crucial opportunity to unlock the full potential of digital health.”

Charting the course of healthcare AI in India

As the industry anticipates further clarity from the July budget, Lawyer stressed that the time is now to act on India’s aspiration for AI-driven healthcare.

“We need a dedicated roadmap, national AI centres for research, and robust ethical frameworks to ensure responsible implementation. Imagine AI-powered diagnostics supporting remote doctors in rural areas or personalised medicine tailoring treatments to individual patients. Expanding broadband access, incentivising telehealth adoption through clear reimbursement policies, and ensuring data security are also crucial steps. Patients in remote villages should be able to access specialist consultations from miles away.

“Breaking down data silos and fostering collaboration is also imperative. Standardised data formats, a national health data repository with robust privacy safeguards, and investments in cybersecurity are key. Imagine researchers gleaning insights from anonymised data to accelerate medical breakthroughs or doctors accessing a patient’s complete medical history across different hospitals.

“Finally, equipping healthcare professionals with digital literacy, AI training, and data analytics skills is essential. Doctors who can confidently use AI-powered tools to diagnose diseases or nurses who leverage technology platforms to provide remote care are the future of the industry. Alongside healthcare providers, we must also empower individuals to take charge of their health. By promoting digital tools for remote monitoring, chronic disease management, and preventive interventions, patients can actively manage their health conditions through mobile health apps or receive personalised health recommendations based on their unique data.

“By investing in these strategic areas, we can create a truly transformative digital health ecosystem in India. This is not just about technology; it’s about empowering individuals, transforming healthcare delivery, and propelling India towards a healthier, more equitable future.”

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