“With the Indian Government finally channelizing all its efforts on enhancing healthcare facilities and augmenting its expanse to the remotest places in the country, the 2 As hold the key in its success – Accessibility & Affordability,” stresses Dr. P. Siva Kumar, Medical Technology Advisor, ESI MedTek Solutions.
Having over 30 years of experience in leadership positions in the core areas of healthcare and specific expertise in Clinical Diagnostics, we invited Dr. Kumar in a Fireside Chat with Sanjay Desai, Co-founder & Regional Director, Humana International, and hosted by Celerity. Dr. Kumar highlights the importance of government’s revolutionary initiative Ayushman Bharat and the role of private sector in ensuring ‘Healthcare for All’. Excerpts…
Would you like to share with us your fond childhood memories?
I hail from a small-town Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. Kurnool was the capital of erstwhile Andhra State between from 1 October 1953 and 31 October 1956. I come from a middle-class family. My grandfather was a teacher, great grandfather was a priest, and my father was a government official, and I have grown to be an executive. There has been a steady growth in the career paths of my lineage. This has come from the culture and the values that have been ingrained in us since childhood. Till up to 10th grade, my education was in Telugu. One of the important people in my life who helped me in smooth transition to English language from Telugu was my grandfather as he was an English teacher. He was totally hard of hearing, so he would make me write my messages to him in English. He would pick mistakes which helped me improve the language. Subsequently, I moved to Hyderabad where I pursed my studies further and my PhD.
Let’s talk about your PhD in biochemistry… at which juncture did you even realize that you were destined to be a celebrated doctorate? How did this transition happen?
It’s a very interesting journey. 10th grade is the milestone for most to decide whether one wishes to go- in medical, engineering or commerce stream. Till that time, I had always been dreaming to be an engineer. But my father always thought that I should be a doctor. He sent one of his officials and got my subject changed from Maths to Biology. Very reluctantly, I moved to the biology stream. Since I was not very keen on Biology, I didn’t focus on studies, and I didn’t qualify for the entrance examination into medical school. Post that I took admission in BSc and further went on to do my MSc and PhD and subsequently went to the US to do post-doctoral research. The idea of doing PhD struck me when I was doing my Masters. Our professor in Biochemistry made this subject very interesting which led me to pursue it further. During PhD, I was mentored by a very eminent scientist from IISc. He was a hard task master. We were expected to be in the laboratory from early morning till late in the night, a routine for almost 5 years. Considering the hard work that I had put in, I became one of his best students. That helped me to explore deeper and get into the training. This is how destiny took me to do PhD in Biochemistry.
After your post-doctoral research and a short work stint in the US, you came to India. What are the value additions that you feel have been a part of your life and what made you come back to the country?
One of the key things in those days when someone does PhD, they would invariably go to the US to get trained better. Three decades back, laboratory infrastructure was poor in India. Even to get a simple chemical to do a research work was extremely difficult. It is very important that one must go out of India to a developed country and get trained well in latest technologies and instrumentation. I was clear when I went to the US that I had to come back to my roots. Many other contemporaries of mine have chosen to settle in those countries, especially the US. Somehow teaching always enthused me. I wanted to be a professor in a university and simultaneously pursue the research. Visiting advanced countries and learning new techniques make one a matured individual and apply the experience in research and help the country to progress. Research infrastructure today has certainly improved in India; however, I still encourage youngsters to experience the US and European style of working. Collectively we need to make our country prosper and for that we need the best of both worlds.
How is the current scenario shaping up in terms of latest technological advancements in our country vis-à-vis other advanced countries?
As I said, three decades back, the equipment or technologies present in the country were at least 20-30 years backwards as compared to developed nations. But today the scenario is very different. Yes, we have been able to advance our laboratories and bring new technological innovations even though there’s lot more that needs to be done. Contemporary technologies started getting launched in India. Many research institutes have come up today. Life sciences have got a fresh lease of life with several new institutes being established. It is important that the output from these institutions need to be much better and the solutions should be in line with the needs of the society. It is noteworthy that government has facilitated through easing the restrictions on imports of requirement for advanced research both in terms of equipment and chemicals needed. High end machines are being airlifted rather than sent through shipping. Logistical bottlenecks have been ironed out. The era of internet has also played a huge part in transforming ideas to reality in a steadfast manner, which used to take significantly longer times earlier.
How did your earlier career choices lead you to where you are now?
I wanted to be an engineer, I ended up somewhere else. Then I wanted to be a scientist and ended up being in a commercial role and became a business head. Opportunities came my way and I accepted them. One of the important things that I realized over the years is, one should never refuse an opportunity coming your way. Put in hard work and dedication to complete the task assigned to you with passion. When one takes up new roles, there is lot of learning, and it will immensely help in career growth. I sincerely adopted this and have been successful. It has also helped me to quickly move up the ladder. I feel proud to share that I became GM at Ranbaxy in just about two and a half years from a junior level manager. This success has not been solely mine, but the contribution of the team I associated also deserve the credit apart from the immense support of the organization.
What have been the challenges on course?
There have been innumerable challenges to say the least, but I never looked back and wasted time thinking about them. At this stage, I would like to mention some important events that helped me to grow up the career ladder. Firstly, I moved from technical to marketing role. Since the products that the organization was dealing were solely technical products, it made my life easier in understanding the products and solutions offered by the company. Important aspect that contributed to my growth has been interaction with the customers and learning from such interactions. According to me, customer is the king and every single function across the organization should be customer focused. While it is mostly the Sales and Marketing Teams that interact with the customers regularly, I strongly feel that the back-end teams, especially the technical teams should go out into the field and understand the experiences, challenges and problems being faced by the customers and it will help in improvising the products being offered by the organization. I once again reiterate that team support is immensely important in working towards the customer delight.
One of the challenging tasks that I encountered in my career has been integration of businesses and teams during “Mergers & Acquisitions”. I had the fortune of being the key player during my tenure as Business Manager. The most important aspect that need to be considered is, we deal with people from vastly different cultures and style of functioning. One needs to keep the emotional and mental balance while managing people and processes during such events. As a leader, it is important to be unbiased and keep the emotions away and work towards the organizational goal.
You have been quite vocal about industry-academia connect. How can companies bridge this gap? Please enlighten us with respect to your global exposure.
I think the responsibility doesn’t lie only with the industry or with academia. They must go hand in hand to develop a holistic ecosystem. According to me it is a three-way process involving “academia”, “industry” and “government”. Ministry of Education plays a crucial role in this activity. The progress and ability of students is measured based on their marks and not on the knowledge and skills that they possess. While we may talk about lakhs of engineering graduates coming out of college every year, have we ever given a thought about their employability? I am confident that this number could not be beyond 15-20%. Such is our education system that we are still not able to bring even 50% of the engineers in the industries due of the lack of hands-on experience and associated skills. Industries on the other hand need to move forward to offer internships to the students right from the beginning and encourage them to acquire the necessary skills based on their aptitude. All these aspects need to be taken seriously with commitment by all the stakeholders if we have the objective of harnessing the true potential of Indian minds and spirits. Academic Institutions should work more towards “Generation of Knowledge” rather than “Distribution of Knowledge”. They should make efforts to bring more focus towards practical skills and knowledge. They should work towards improving the infrastructure of the institutions in that direction. Management of the academic institutions should aggressively work towards establishing connect with the students and Industry, educating them on the latest trends, industrial visits, internships and bring in faculty who have the understanding and exposure of industry and guide the students to become more employable.
On the other hand, industry should work towards bridging the gaps and acquire talent that is competent and productive resulting in profitability.
Industry should volunteer to facilitate the academic institutions and government in restructuring the curriculum. They should become faculty in the academic institutions and facilitate internship programs for students. Industry experts should also motivate the students in joining the industry enabling them to have quality life and be part of nation building.
On its part, the government should make policy-related changes enabling the industry and academia come closer leading to enhanced employability of students graduating from the academic institutions. They should also work effectively in monitoring and advertising the skill initiatives of all the stakeholders. Incentivize the industry for promotion of internship and training programs. Last, but not the least, collaboration with Academia and Industry to formulate the curriculum for the schools and colleges. In conclusion, the collaboration between academia and industry has always been a hot topic among the research community and it has become more imminent now due to the rapid transformation in business volumes and models and the interest from academia in applying their innovative research to “industrially relevant” problems. Governments must become the main vehicle driving this collaboration. They must identify key areas of this collaboration leading to industrial benefits and scientific innovation, finally leading to economic and scientific growth.
You are a strong advocate of ‘Make in India’ initiative. Do you think that in India we have the ecosystem for the medical devices, life sciences, and healthcare? Is it matured enough to reap the benefits of the initiative?
Medical devices constitute a significant part of the healthcare industry. In India, 85% of the medical devices today are imported. Very significant number of imports come from countries where the quality is questionable. Hence there is an imminent need for manufacturing in India to mitigate the dependency on imports. As far as the environment is concerned, we have the requisite talent, but it appears that there is a lack of intention. Since the last many decades, this has never been an area of focus. Fortunately, in the last 8-10 years, we have made a few initial steps. Manufacturing should not be restricted to only assembling the imported components. This does not make it fully ‘Make in India’ and does not meet the objective of providing affordable healthcare. It is essential to create an ecosystem that makes the devices accessible and affordable. On the other hand, it will also create a large amount of employment opportunities for young graduates. I am confident in the next 4-5 years; we will see lot of progress in this space.
How do you see the government’s role in bringing progressive schemes such as Ayushman Bharat and young medical professionals’ role in enhancing the expanse of healthcare services till the last mile with the help of technology?
70% of the population live in rural areas while 70% of the healthcare infrastructure is in the urban area. This statement is a testimony to the clear divide that persists and at the same time presents a unique opportunity for the government to expand medical facilities in the rural regions. India produces 30,000 to 40,000 doctors every year. Most of them desire to be in the urban areas for obvious reasons. Ayushman Bharat is one of the most promising schemes of the government to make healthcare facilities accessible for all. To make the Ayushman Bharat successful necessary infrastructure should be established in rural areas. Digital technologies should be employed to ensure that healthcare is accessible to a large section of the people. With the country now widely covered with mobile network, accessibility could be easily addressed using appropriate solutions. AI enabled solutions will play a major role in making this initiative a success. As an example, diagnostic solutions are undergoing revolutionary changes that would enable healthcare providers to provide solutions without the patient having to visit the clinic or healthcare center. Similarly, significant amount of integration is happening between various sectors of healthcare to ensure that healthcare is accessible to larger percentage of people living in remote areas. Covid-19 pandemic has already accelerated remote care where in medical professionals and the patients have utilized teleconsultation to their advantage.
What are the opportunities waiting to be tapped for public private partnership?
I would like to give credit to the government as there has been a sea change in the behavioural pattern of the government to bring about a positive change aimed at the betterment of people’s lives. Having said that, the infrastructure is matured and well-developed in the private sector. Lot of people are coming forward from the private sector to be a part of this change, which is welcoming news. This will also set the stage for heightened competition, eventually leading to increased state-of-the-art healthcare facilities in the country, especially in rural government hospitals. Private players need to join hands with the government to enable them in enhancing healthcare infrastructure across the length & breadth of the country with their expertise and new age technologies. The partnership is happening in multiple sectors and implementing the same in healthcare will be a win-win for all.
How do you unwind yourself after a long day at work?
I am fond of Carnatic music. I follow the Carnatic musicians. I am engaged with some of the renowned musicians and do workshops with them for translating some of their melodious compositions. Secondly, I like reading biographies specially politicians and sports personalities.