The National Health Authority (NHA) released the Consultation Paper on Operationalising Unified Health Interface (UHI) in India on December 14, 2022. The deadline for submission of comments was January 13, 2023. We collaborated with the Centre for Health Equity, Law & Policy, the Centre for Internet & Society, & the Forum for Medical Ethics Society to submit comments on the paper.
The UHI is proposed to be a “foundational layer of the Ayushman Bharat Digital Health Mission (ABDM)” and is “envisioned to enable interoperability of health services in India through open protocols”. The ABDM, previously known as the National Digital Health Mission, was announced by the Prime Minister on the 74th Independence Day, and it envisages the creation of a National Digital Health Ecosystem with six key features: Health ID, Digi Doctor, Health Facility Registry, Personal Health Records, Telemedicine, and e-Pharmacy. After launching the programme in six Union Territories, the National Health Authority issued a press release on August 26, 2020 announcing the public consultation for the Draft Health Data Management Policy for NDHM. While the government has repeatedly claimed that creation of a health ID is purely voluntary, contrary reports have emerged. In our comments as part of the public consultation, our primary recommendation was that deployment of any digital health ID programme must be preceded by the enactment of general and sectoral data protection laws by the Parliament of India; and meaningful public consultation which reaches out to vulnerable groups which face the greatest privacy risks.
As per the synopsis document which accompanies the consultation paper, it aims to “seek feedback on how different elements of UHI should function. Inviting public feedback will allow for early course correction, which will in-turn engender trust in the network and enhance market adoption. The feedback received through this consultation will be used to refine the functionalities of UHI so as to limit any operational issues going forward.” The consultation paper contains a set of close-ended questions at the end of each section through which specific feedback has been invited from interested stakeholders. We have collaborated with the Centre for Health Equity, Law & Policy, the Centre for Internet & Society, & the Forum for Medical Ethics Society to draft the comments on this consultation paper.
Our main concern relates to the approach the Government of India and concerned Ministries adopt to draft a consultation paper without explicitly outlining how the proposed UHI fits into the broader healthcare ecosystem and quantifying how it improves it rendering the consultation paper and public engagement efforts inadequate. Additionally, it doesn’t allow the public at large, and other stakeholders to understand how it may contribute to people’s access to quality care towards ensuring realisation of their constitutional right to health and health care. The close-ended nature of the consultation process, wherein specific questions have been posed, restricts stakeholders from questioning the structure of the ABDM itself and forces us to engage with its parts, thereby incorrectly assuming that there is support for the direction in which the ABDM is being developed.
A. General comments
a. Absence of underlying legal framework
Ensuring health data privacy requires legislation at three levels- comprehensive laws, sectoral laws and informal rules. Here, the existing proposal for the data protection legislation, i.e., the draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 (DPDPB, 2022) which could act as the comprehensive legal framework, is inadequate to sufficiently protect health data. This inadequacy arises from the failure of the DPDPB, 2022 to give higher degree of protection to sensitive personal data and allowing for non-consensual processing of health data in certain situations under Clause 8 which relates to “deemed consent”. Here, it may also be noted that the DPDPB, 2022 fails to specifically define either health or health data. Further, the proposed Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act, 2017, which may have acted as a sectoral law, is presently before the Parliament and has not been enacted. Here, the absence of safeguards allows for data capture by health insurance firms and subsequent exclusion/higher costs for vulnerable groups of people. Similarly, such data capture by other third parties potentially leads to commercial interests creeping in at the cost of users of health care services and breach of their privacy and dignity.
b. Issues pertaining to scope
Clarity is needed on whether UHI will be only providing healthcare services through private entities, or will also include the public health care system and various health care schemes and programs of the government, such as eSanjeevani.
c. Pre-existing concerns
- Exclusion: Access to health services through the Unified Health Interface should not be made contingent upon possessing an ABHA ID, as alluded to in the section on ‘UHI protocols in action: An example’ under Chapter 2(b). Such an approach is contrary to the Health Data Management Policy that is based on individual autonomy and voluntary participation. Clause 16.4 of the Policy clearly states that nobody will “be denied access to any health facility or service or any other right in any manner by any government or private entity, merely by reason of not creating a Health ID or disclosing their Health ID…or for not being in possession of a Health ID.” Moreover, the National Medical Commission Guidelines for Telemedicine in India also does not create any obligation for the patient to possess an ABHA ID in order to access any telehealth service. The UHI should explicitly state that a patient can log in on the network using any identification and not just ABHA.
- Consent: As per media reports, registration for a UHID under the NDHM, which is an earlier version of the ABHA number under the ABDM, may have been voluntary on paper but it was being made mandatory in practice by hospital administrators and heads of departments. Similarly, reports suggest that people who received vaccination against COVID-19 were assigned a UHID number without their consent or knowledge.
- Function creep: In the absence of an underlying legal framework, concerns also arise that the health data under the NDHM scheme may suffer from function creep, i.e., the collected data being used for purposes other than for which consent has been obtained. These concerns arise due to similar function creep taking place in the context of data collected by the Aarogya Setu application, which has now pivoted from being a contact-tracing application to “health app of the nation”. Here, it must be noted that as per a RTI response dated June 8, 2022 from NIC, the Aarogya Setu Data Access And Knowledge Sharing Protocol “has been discontinued".
- Issues with the United Payments Interface may be replicated by the UHI: The consultation paper cites the United Payments Interface (UPI) as “strong public digital infrastructure” which the UHI aims to leverage. However, a trend towards market concentration can be witnessed in UPI: the two largest entities, GooglePay and PhonePe, have seen their market share hover around 35% and 47% (by volume) for some time now (their share by value transacted is even higher). Meanwhile, the share of the NPCI’s own app (BHIM) has fallen from 40% in August 2017 to 0.74% in September 2021. Thus, if such a model is to be adopted, it is important to study the UPI model to understand such threats and ensure that a similar trend towards oligopoly or monopoly formation in UHI is addressed. This is all the more important in a country in which the decreasing share of the public health sector has led to skyrocketing healthcare costs for citizens.
B. Our response also addressed specific questions about search and discovery, service booking, grievance redressal, and fake reviews and scores. Our responses on these questions can be found in our comments here.
Our previous submissions on health data
We have consistently engaged with the government since the announcement of the NDHM in 2020. Some of our submissions and other outputs are linked below:
- IFF’s comment on the Draft Health Data Management Policy dated May 21, 2022 (link)
- IFF’s comments on the consultation Paper on Healthcare Professionals Registry dated July 20, 2021 (link)
- IFF and C-HELP Working Paper: ‘Analysing the NDHM Health Data Management Policy’ dated June 11, 2021 (link)
- IFF’s Consultation Response to Draft Health Data Retention Policy dated January 6, 2021 (link)
- IFF’s comments on the National Digital Health Mission’s Health Data Management Policy dated September 21, 2020 (link)
- Response on the Consultation Paper on Operationalising Unified Health Interface (UHI) in India by Centre for Health Equity, Law & Policy, the Centre for Internet & Society, the Forum for Medical Ethics Society, & IFF dated January 13, 2023 (link)
- NHA’s Consultation Paper on Operationalising Unified Health Interface (UHI) in India dated December 14, 2022 (link)
- Synopsis of NHA’s Consultation Paper on Operationalising Unified Health Interface (UHI) in India dated December 14, 2022 (link)