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Indian Conglomerate ITC Sends Team To Israel To Scour Tech For New Hospital

An Indian delegation, including two executives charged with creating a hospital business for ITC, a large Indian conglomerate, traveled to the MedinIsrael digital health conference in Tel Aviv last week to understand tech innovations and transfer them where appropriate.

Dr. Chandy Abraham and Mayur Dogra are on a mission. To build a large, new multi-speciality, tertiary hospital in northern India that will set a new bar for healthcare quality and access in that populous Asian country.

They represent ITC, a large Indian conglomerate based in Kolkata, India. Abraham has been enlisted to be the CEO of the new hospital and Dogra is vice president, growth and development of ITC’s healthcare business. They traveled to Israel during the 5th annual MedinIsrael digital health conference in Tel Aviv last week, to scour the conference for technologies that may be translated from the nation of $8.9 million people to that of over $1 billion. And also to learn from Israel, which Abraham described as being on the forefront of innovation.

While Dogra said that ITC’s board had given a mandate to build a new multi-specialty hospital, he wasn’t ready to share details publicly. For example, no information about where the hospital would be located other than northern India, which is a wide swath of territory. India’s land mass is about one-third the size of the United States. No information was available on how large the new hospital would be in terms of number of beds, except that it would be … well, large.

Dr. Abraham noted that ITC is looking at how it can improve both quality of healthcare and access, the latter of which is especially challenging in India where the majority of the population lives in rural regions with poor healthcare infrastructure.

“Generally what happens is that people first build a hospital and then they starting thinking of what innovations, what technologies they need to put in it,” Abraham explained. “So we are trying to do it the other way.”

It appears that the hospital project has been in the works for a while. Reports of ITC board’s plan to set up multi-specialty hospitals date back to February 2017. More than a year later — in June 2018 — another article reported chairman Yogesh Chander Deveshwar telling shareholders that ITC would not rush into the hospital sector given its lack of knowledge in the field.

In Israel, Dr. Abraham, who was named in that Economic Times article as part of the team studying the healthcare opportunity for ITC, said that the new hospital would provide care for “everybody.”

That’s a bold vision given that healthcare in India is largely paid out of pocket and most cannot afford it. To tackle the problem, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in September, 2018, that the Indian government would provide free care for 100 million families — that equates to about 500 million of the poorest Indian citizens.

“The problem in India is that there is a large volume so you need to be able to provide access to a large number of people and at the same time it needs to be economically viable,” Dr. Abraham said, noting that he and the ITC team are “thinking about even if [people] don’t have money, how are we going to let them access health.”

It’s not just business models that Abraham and Vogra have to think creatively about. They also have to carefully consider the technology that can serve the needs of the Indian population. There are varying degree of education and tech sophistication in India that make transferring technology from a place like Israel challenging.

“So if you have a very literate group you can transfer some technology that they can manage at home with their iPads and devices. But for some other groups of people, it won’t be applicable at all,” Dr. Abraham said. “So we have to be very sensible and sensitive to how we look at this transfer of technology.”

More specifically, he pointed to remote monitoring technology especially as it relates to maternal and fetal health, as a technology that could be transferred to India. Maternal health has been a focus in the country and the World Health Organization has commended India on its efforts to dramatically reduce the maternal mortality rate by 77 percent from 556 per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 130 per 100,000 live births in 2016.

Dr. Abraham is looking to leverage inexpensive remote monitoring technologies in that area of maternal and fetal health.

“We don’t have to ask people to buy [the device]. But if we have health workers who’s got that and uses it on a home, straight away we’ll have one level of data that we’ve never had,” he said.

In India, the hospital chain that has won name recognition overseas is Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited headquartered in the southern city of Chennai. With a smile Dr. Abraham declined to comment about Apollo and how the new hospital by ITC would be a competitor, but an Israeli trade officer declared, in a separate, casual, conversation that the goal is to surpass Apollo in terms of quality.

To be able to succeed in thus green field project Abraham, Vogra and the ITC healthcare services team have to answer some hard questions. The enormity of the task ahead is not lost on Abraham.

“We have to be very clever about developing the economic model. What’s the human need? Is it technically feasible and is it business viable? To put all these three together is a tough question. But we are trying to make sure that we are very thoughtful about it,” he said.

And so the Imperial Tobacco Company Limited founded in pre-independent India, which became India Tobacco Company Limited in 1970 and then ITC in 1974, which sells everything from cigarettes, to incense to perfume, is the second-largest hotel chain operator in India and also has an IT business, is preparing to enter the  healthcare business.

“There is a gap in the Indian system of quality healthcare,” Dogra said. “You know our hospitality background – you know that is a big piece [that can be used in] the recovery of patients. So I think leveraging some of those capabilities that are residing with us and the fact that there is a gap in the market that needs to be addressed is something that is pushing us to look in this sector.” – Med City News