Where Are We Going Wrong with Unified Health Interface (UHI) – the UPI for Healthcare?

Where Are We Going Wrong with Universal Health Initiative (UHI)?


In 2020, I wrote a blog titled From Telegraph Road to US$50 Billion Digital Health Silk Road Digital Health Silk Road Archives | Kapil Khandelwal KK celebrating the announcement of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) under the National Health Authority (NHA). We had worked out the direct and indirect impaction to the Indian economy that such an initiative will result. Over the next few years, the turn of events have led the country to not move forward on such a huge initiative for the healthcare of people of India. Let’s look at the turn of events leading up to the recent development and the way forward from here.

Key Developments in the Journey of Developing our Universal Health Initiative (UHI)

‘National Health Stack – Strategy and Approach’

In 2018, NITI Aayog released a document setting out the building blocks of the National Health Stack as ‘common public goods’ which are essential for an implementation of digital health initiatives in India. The key components described in the National Health Stack were national health electronic registries, claims platform, federated personal health records framework, national health analytics platform, and other horizontal components.

National Digital Health Blueprint (NDHB).

In 2019, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) released the National Digital Health Blueprint (NDHB). The need for creating a framework for the evolution of a ‘National Digital Health Ecosystem’ (NDHE) – an ecosystem and not a system, was recognized in the NDHB. The NDHB lists out principles, building blocks, applications and digital services, standards, institutional frameworks etc, to create such an ecosystem.

National Telemedicine Guidelines

During Covid, the Medical Council of India (MCI) quickly released the National Telemedicine Guildlines to enable tele consultations so that limited capacity of the physicians is utilised for remote consultations during the pandemic and lockdowns.

Consultation Paper on Unified Health Interface (UHI)

In March 2021, MoHFW released a consultation paper on Unified Health Interface (UHI) to replicate its digital-payment success in healthcare. Taking cues from the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), it set out to establish a similar system for healthcare inclusion and universal health for the people on a ‘Bharat Stack’ for Healthcare. I am sure many of the tech industry bodies such as Nasscom, iSpirit and CII and FICCI would also have been consulted in framing the Consultation Paper.

Current Status

iSpirit, Indian tech industry body was appointed by National Health Authority (NHA) to lead the development of UHI. There have been delays in operationalizing the UHI and recent media reports state that key disagreement between the NHA and iSpirt on the nature of the UHI network-and iSpirit walking away from the project.

Why Did UHI not take Off?

iSpirit and Media View Points

There is a long format article from Ken that has been doing rounds and my talks with some of the Healthtech and other VC investors interested in this initiative have been summarized here:

  • Limited use of iSpirit partners for building components
  • Rationale of iSpirit partners that were short-listed for pilot and those left out for the wider roll out in the next stage
  • Conflict of interest between the iSpirit partners shortlisted that would push their product/components into the UHI pilot making it not a fully open system
  • Lack of openness between the iSpirit and NHA on the development and roadmap for wider participation of healthcare industry players
  • Slippage of deadlines for the teleconsultation solution multiple times drawing the ire of NHA
  • Self-doubts within iSpirit on the future success of the pilot and the eventual scale of UHI
  • iSpirits experience with other non-healthcare solutions roll-outs on the way forward in the roll out of UHI to the nation which is not true for healthcare as compared to fintech, social commerce and other digital solutions

My Views on Current UHI’s State

Let me tackle the lack of understanding of the reality of the Indian healthcare system and how it is evolving in the future for the UHI to succeed. These are some of the points that I have made in the past in various industry forum presentations, my articles and blogs. Then I will address the way forward from here for UHI to succeed

India’s Scale in UHI will be an Aggregation of its Diversity of People – The Markers for Healthcare Delivery

Based on my experience of rolling out the 104 and 108 helplines in late 2000s, for any solution to be successful, especially the teleconsultation that iSpirit and NHA were developing, it has to build for the different languages and dialects prevalent not only in a region of a state, but across states due to floating population. As recently as covid pandemic, when we were rolling out CovidBots for triage on the 104 for a few states, we have realized that nothing has changed in the last 20 years in India. The figure below provides the language diversity for which we will need to implement not a one product fits all under UHI.

India Diversity in Numbers – Genetio-Lingustic Segmentation
India Diversity in Numbers – Genetio-Lingustic Segmentation

With the best of the cloud services, India has a limitation of 23 languages being provided with voice translation capabilities.

What Scale are we talking of?

Based on our population genetic, epidemiological, chronic disease burden, I had released this state-wise risk map of India in 2010. This show that we have around 50 million households which have high-risk burden. This is twice as big as the population of USA. This is expected to touch over USD 150 bn of spend not just on curative but preventive care.

What is the scale?
What is the scale?

So what is the scale we are talking of? Is this not sizeable according to iSpirit? How does this compare with the subscribers are using UPI? As of July 2021, there were around 130 million monthly active subscribers on UPI after 5 years of its launch. As per industry estimates if I recall, the digital health services teleconsultations peaked during Covid lockdown and were around 100 million monthly active subscribers/teleconsultations consultations. This is even before the launch of teleconsultations module of UHI. Can you imagine the multiplier effect once it goes mainstream?

Why Not Partner with Nasscom’s Tech Services Companies?

On the issue of openness between iSpirit and NHA on the development and roadmap for wider participation of healthcare industry players, my take is that iSpirit’s objective is to promote product players from India. But, I must remind that large IT services players like Wipro, Infosys, Cognizant, TCS, IBM, Tech Mahindra, etc who have been building point-solutions for some of the leading healthcare players and governments globally for over twenty years. Not inviting and leveraging these partners from Nasscom is also one of the reasons for failure of UHI

Learning from Past Mega Global Healthtech Product Failures

I have written in the past on why global players with deep pockets like Google, Microsoft, IBM, etc have failed on their healthcare initiatives. National Digital Health Archives | Kapil Khandelwal KK Haven’t we any learnings from such mega failures?

Why Did Google Health Fail
Why Did Google Health Fail

Digital Health Penetration Across States is Not Uniform Nor is State-wise Regulations

In our 2021, State Healthcare Heat Map 2021 States Heat Map | Kapil Khandelwal KK, the first of its kind report for which are the hottest states to invest in healthcare, we have covered factors like Penetration of Digital Health. It is very clear that UHI to be successful, it is not going piecemeal staggered solutions go-live, but a big-bang all UHI solutions go-live in the states with highest digital health penetration. Moreover, have we not learnt lessons on how each of the states managed the delivery of Covid Care Sustainability Of Digital Health | Kapil Khandelwal KK as healthcare is a state subject. Have we not forgotten that West Bengal is not there for running the Ayushman Bharat. Nor does it run the National Health Emergency Ambulance number 108. Assuming, even if UHI would have gone live, there would be another layer of customisation that UHI would have to roll out for each of the states where the healthcare is delivered. Different states are at different maturity of implementation of various medical criminal code and consumer protection. Such state regulations and code cannot be circumvented by one EULA of the UHI and the modules. We are not transferring money like UPI, we are managing health of the people where there are risks of lives.

2021 States Investment Heat Map
2021 States Investment Heat Map

Start with the Building Blocks

Post Covid, a lot has changed. Since UHI wanted to start with teleconsultations, can we even get the ICD-11 codes live in India so that we are up to international standards? Since outpatient consultations/teleconsultations are predominantly out of pocket spend, there is least incentive for the care giver on the street to fill up the forms and ICD codes. With ICD coding in the UHI, AI tools at the back end would be able to assist not only the care givers but also the consumers, the other ancillary benefits of coding would follow.

In Conclusion

Setting aside the differences, it is clear that UHI’s scale and opportunity is even bigger than UPI’s and its impact on the people of India once it is fully implemented and evangalised by each of the states of India. Comparing success of UPI to UHI will be a totally wrong starting point. UHI is like the GST (GST has its own set of issues) with each state having its say in the GST Counsil. Let us reenergize the UHI with bringing in the States and Nasscom players into the solution to make it more viable and successful.    

Why is India’s National Digital Health Mission is likely to succeed?

Why is India’s National Digital Health Mission is likely to succeed?


Last year the Government of India announced the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM). We were asked to review and comment on the draft as one of the stakeholders in healthcare. This inclusive approach to involve the various stake holders was never seen before. We believe that COVID-19 and NDHM has increased the pace of digital healthcare and can unlock USD 200 to 250 billion in next 10 years in terms of primary and secondary impact to the nation’s economic value. Such is the magnitude of the NDHM initiative for India. So will this succeed?

To understand the critical success factors for India, let’s understand some notable failures and learn from them. Also we need to learn from the currently ongoing Covid Vaccination Drive in the country that’s the largest in the world and the fastest that will cover over a billion people.

Notable Failures

We have several tech giants and countries that have invested and failed in rolling out digital health initiatives. Some of these that come to my mind are:

Google Health

I had written in my column on Why did Google Health Fail? (see text below)

Why Did Google Health Fail 1
Why Did Google Health Fail?

IBM Watson Health

Some of the insider views on the closure of IBM Watson Health (shut down on 31 Dec 2020) are as under:

  • Business call by IBM leadership – viability of the case in oncology
  • Muted doctor’s acceptance
  • 50:50 prediction accuracy of the algos
  • Wrong expectations set when initially selling the idea to the doctors and Manipal
  • Difference in clinical pathways of oncologists on the Watson output
  • Implementation was very complex due to the different oncology tumour and stage
  • Oncologists time to teach the system versus doing it by their own experience
    • Doctors believed that they were recruited to treat the patient and not teach the Watson
  • Limited use case of the system
    • More for research than for actual treatment and second opinion

UK NHS Spine Program

As part of the leadership team of one of the vendors involved in the UK NHS Technology initiative and also interacting with the Managing Director of British Telecom Healthcare that was leading the rollout in the UK of the NHS Spine, I gathered that the digital health (in those days-2007, this was not called digital health) in UK had a partial success. The reasons were multi-fold:

  • Exgaggerated benefits of the program
  • Botched up decentralized implementation at the different trust level
  • Multiple stakeholders with their wrested interest
  • Manpower and resources shortages
  • Multi-year delays and costs overruns
  • Poor change management and acceptance at the ground level with the clinical workers
  • And many more issues

African ICT and Digital Initiatives

As part of the Health and ICT Minister’s Panel for Africa, the major issues voiced by the Ministers from the African continent happens to be the disease of Pilotonomics. There have been multiple pilots of initiatives but none have actually fructified to be a mainstream as some of them have been abandoned by the sponsors and the donors as the budgets ran out

Have seen the failures across the Tech Giants, developed world countries and low income countries, the issues of failures are a myriad of technology, sponsorship, change management and end user acceptance.

Why will India succeed?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, India Government initiated a host of digital initiative (see blog Sustainability of Digital Health | Kapil Khandelwal (KK)). The most important being the roll out of the CoWin App for the vaccination of the citizens. For the first time on the world, a billion people would be mobilized through this initiative for their vaccination. With the pace and success of the initiative and the citizen acceptance, we will see that the National Digital Health Mission will succeed. Some of the positives that I am seeing include:

  • PMO and senior Ministers’ and Bureaucrats’ driving this Mission
  • Inclusive attitude to gather all the stakeholder’s voices right from the beginning
  • ICT framework and the National Telemedicine Act also being enacted bringing the decades of differences between the Medical Council of India (MCI) and various players to an end
    • Many doctors have actually started using Telemedicine during the lockdowns

Let’s not belittle the National Digital Health initiatives for shorter political gains!

Also read: Digital Health | Kapil Khandelwal (KK)

Republished Column: A Dose of IT: Why did Google Health fail?

Google Health is not going to be there anymore.

After its launch in May 2008, Google Health has gone through its chequered existence till the Google Execs announced, last week, to withdraw the product by end of 2011. As I epilogue, I will use the PESTC model to conduct the postmortem analysis on the death on Google Health

Politically, 2007-08 was a time when concerns around reforming healthcare reform were at its peak and a one of the key agenda items in the US Presidential war. Such rhetoric on healthcare and need to reform healthcare was politically echoed world over by many leaders. This political analyst wanted to get more bang for the buck on healthcare spend. This meant more business for healthcare ICT to create solutions to address the issues of healthcare access, costs, quality, outcomes and so on. Politically, it made sense for tech heavy weights to put their might in launching healthcare solutions and in this political back drop that Google Health was launched. However since then and Obama’s healthcare reforms bill, not much impact for many tech major’s who waged on healthcare and hence to reassess their decisions to throw their towels in.

Economically, this was the time for world’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Healthcare was seen as anti-recessionary. Tech major’s boardrooms and leadership strategy break outs discussed derisking and growth by enter social sectors such as healthcare, education and so on. Google’s board and leadership could not have been thinking differently when giving thumbs up to invest in healthcare business. However as many tech major now realize that healthcare requires long-term strategic vision and investments to stay in the game. Like many other tech major, Google has other investment priorities in other portfolios of their business such as android OS and mobile phones and devices, etc. It made sense for them to exit out of a sector that requires time and investments to change the way people and clinicians manage health.

Socially, the rise of social media is changing the way people manage information, communicate, exchange content and interact including their doctors and care givers. Google Health failed to capture this trend in their solutions.

Technologically, Google failed to learn from the failures of many others who failed in the past and replicated solutions where there are far more superior solutions and players in the field. Some major gaps, I guess alignment with doctors and clinicians is the first step towards creating a technologically superior solution that can align with healthcare consumers. Secondly, there were hardly any vertical partnerships in healthcare that Google went out to create an ecosystem. Lastly, Google did not integrate their other products such as Google Maps that could provide location aware services to the consumers on their health.

Consumers and competition, contributed to putting the nails in the coffin of Google Health. Google Health focused on one end of the healthcare value chain and did not believe in working in aligning the overall healthcare ecosystem. Moreover, consumers are moving towards mobile-based solutions on their smart handphones that Google Health failed to capture as a trend. Lastly, competition has far better ideas and staying power as health tech solutions is a long-term game.  

With Google Health putting down their shutters on their shop, what are the implications? Firstly, the spotlight now falls on Microsoft HealthVault. Analysts will now try to second guess Microsoft’s response to this development. Health is a very large opportunity that Google may not like to miss. It may come back with an acquisition sometime later.

Google Health, RiP!