Oct 09, 2021 / by Jayata Sharma / No Comments

Mr. Anand K., CEO, SRL Diagnostics

Speaks about the changing landscape of the diagnostics industry, need for value-based healthcare; and emphasizes the role of digital technology

The video is a detailed account of a conversation with him. Below is an excerpt…

Could you provide an overview of your observations of the situation over the last 18 months and the role of technology in aiding the healthcare system?

This pandemic has altered the very perception of diagnostics as a field. Diagnostics, from being on the sidelines of healthcare priorities, has gained centerstage. In March 2020, the immediate lockdown disrupted the chain of transporting samples across states, and the industry faced a massive decline in walk-in business. This was the time for the diagnostics sector to reinvent and reorient itself in terms of its operations. Digital technology has been critical in ensuring that the diagnostics industry continues to provide healthcare workers and patients with the support that they require. 

As a corporation we also realized the importance of contingency and business continuity planning. So, in the post-COVID era, there is a need to review and renew business continuity planning using the lessons learnt in the last months. The pandemic has fueled the ‘Clinical Lab 2.0’ model, fast-tracking a much-needed transformation. This will help to redefine the role of a lab in the care continuum. We realize that we need to innovate on delivery models to ensure integrated and value-based care.

SRL Diagnostics is also collaborating with the Government on the National Digital Health Mission as a health information provider. These initiatives prioritize patient centricity and digital transformation. These are a few steps which will get us ready for the third wave, which is expected to be much more subdued compared to the second one. This is a hopeful scenario keeping in mind the pace of vaccinations. We, as SRL, are also proud to say that we are part of this vaccination initiative and we have started four vaccination centers across Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata. 

Do you see any regions where cases have picked up at a concerning rate? 

What we are seeing is that some states like Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Assam have higher test positivity rates compared to other states and we also see an increase in numbers. While cases have not reduced in some time, market re-openings have progressed. Commercial and travel activities have also revived. Here, a difference from the earlier waves is that we have come to terms with living with COVID. As long as people follow COVID appropriate behaviors in public and the pace of vaccination remains constant, the third wave will look much different than the earlier ones. 

The private sector has scaled up significantly during the last months. What has been the SRL experience in the last year?

When we started in March 2020, we had two molecular biology labs across the country. Today we have 20 labs carrying out testing in the country and we also have five labs in the pipeline which will go live in another two months. In terms of improving testing capacity in India, the private sector played a major role by providing optimal solutions. Digital technology too is pushing us to become more efficient and scalable. Today we have almost 70% capacity, which can cater to people across smaller cities.

The diagnostics industry has suffered from a lack of skilled manpower. To tackle this issue, SRL sought to work with organizations, universities and training centers for upskilling and re-skilling people. The critical aspect is upskilling, training and engaging employees. Another key aspect of our experience was to adapt to the change in consumer behavior. Digital services like accessing reports online, booking home visits and related services had to be provided for customers swiftly. Use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand how to put data to better use for the benefit of doctors and patients was also carried out.

What role will the diagnostics sector play in helping the healthcare system move towards providing robust home and community health-based services?

Value based and accountable healthcare, instead of just managed healthcare is the key to such a positive change. Aligning with the future of value-based healthcare requires institutions to go from being transactional to adopting a more integrative attitude towards patient care. Diagnostic laboratories too need to look at outcome-based models of costing and not just unit-based ones.

Diagnostics is the first point for preventive health. Today, people can integrate personal data from wellness devices like health watches with lab tests to get a holistic view of their health and wellness. Combining this data with modern tools like predictive genomics can help determine predisposition for cancer or heart diseases. Making best use of emerging technologies and using information from patients and the community to create actionable insights is an aspect where diagnostics services can play a role. This will allow for enhanced community and individual intervention.

There are still a number of unqualified labs in India with variable quality. What could be to improve adherence to quality standards in India?

SRL has the highest number of NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) accredited labs in the country by a lab chain. At the same time, among the thousands of labs in the nation, hardly 2-3% are NABL accredited. The understanding and awareness of the general population of the importance of accreditation is still low although the previous months have somewhat improved this awareness. Lack of standardization of processes is a deterrent to quality lab facilities. The Government has a most significant role in bringing about policy directives that help in the creation of more accredited institutions. This can help us fast-track the process of quality care provided by diagnostic labs.

What are some of the best practices that SRL has adopted to ensure the wellbeing of its employees?

Healthcare workers across the nation have overcome threats of violence and sacrificed personal safety to carry out their responsibilities and support the system during the pandemic. Due to the risks initially associated with sample collection, some employees were afraid to go back home to their families. We took measures to provide accommodation for employees. Apart from this, food facilities, transport services and increased insurance coverages were provided. Rigorous training on safety and precautions with cash incentives were provided. We covered the hospitalization charges for all employees who were COVID positive.

The key tenants that we are driving on are financial benefits for employees, upskilling and reskilling employees. We also launched a doctor consultation helpline which was shared with employees and their families for when they needed to reach out for medical services for themselves. 

There is a strong presence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in India. What can healthcare institutions do to direct people towards preventive healthcare? 

What we find is that people tend to deprioritize preventive health while the Government is focused on public healthcare and communicable. NCDs are not being addressed at a satisfactory level in the nation. The Government should initiate activities like planning screening of the larger population for NCDs.

Once there is awareness, the diagnostic sector can be approached for appropriate testing. There are age-group based programs that people can join for period screening for NCDs which is facilitated by diagnostic laboratories. However, if people lack awareness entirely, the diagnostic system alone cannot provide support. This needs to be a public-private initiative across states in India.