Dr. Saurabh Varshney, Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Deoghar Jharkhand, talks at length with Education Post’s Tanay Kumar to explain how miraculously beneficial artificial intelligence (AI) and metaverse, which involves a fusion of virtual and augmented reality, can prove to be for the healthcare sector.
Please take us through your academic and professional journey.
My father, Dr. Dharamveer Varshney, was a civil engineer, who pursued his Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Roorkee – then considered as the country’s premiere institution in the field. His academic dedication left a lasting impression on me and laid the foundation for my own aspirations.
As for my journey to becoming a doctor, it was more a matter of default than a choice. My elder brother had taken maths, so I chose biology for my career which felt good though, leaving me with that path to follow. I had to take up biology, and this turn of events, though unintentional, proved as a blessing. Influences from my maternal side further inspired me towards medical – my maternal grandfather, Dr. Ishwar Sharan, was a respected physician and ENT surgeon in Rampur of Uttar Pradesh, along with my maternal uncle who also pursued ENT surgery.
My academic path led me to a reputed medical college, where I pursued both graduation and post-graduation. After completing my training, I got really inclined towards academics. In 1995, I got on board an academic career as a faculty member at a medical college. Over the next 28 years, I dedicated myself to this field, understanding that as educators, we must continue learning to effectively guide the next generation.
Recently, I lost my father, who held an academic record with degrees including M.Sc., M.Phil., Ph.D., and PSC, all earned from the University of Roorkee. He also wrote numerous books and publications during his time as a chief engineer at UP Irrigation.
My mother, Manjula Varshney, although a qualified individual with a double M.Ed., chose to support us as a dedicated homemaker. Her contributions played a vital role in our achievements.
In November 2021, you wrote a journal titled “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its Role in Otorhinolaryngology,” and we all know that people are going gaga over AI. Please tell us about how you thought to work on this issue and what conclusion you got.
When discussing artificial intelligence, it’s important to consider its core components – artificial and intelligence. Artificial is about creations by humans, while intelligence refers to the ability to train and equip machines to perform tasks to do better than the human brain or at least at that quality. This criterion is particularly crucial when it comes to medical applications, where the objective is to ensure that any artificial intelligence tool or system can match or exceed the capabilities of the human brain.
In the quest to develop such devices, a comprehensive approach is essential. For instance, in collaboration with IIT Roorkee, we are currently engaged in a project focused on addressing challenges faced by patients with conditions like Parkinson’s disease. By recording and analyzing over 1500 voice patterns of Parkinson’s patients, we aim to create software that can enhance speech clarity, thus aiding communication for individuals with this condition.
The process of enabling artificial intelligence in medicine involves deep learning, where the machine learns to distinguish between correct, incorrect, and erroneous data by analyzing variations in different parameters. Take the example of ECG patterns – with more than a thousand representations of ECG data, the machine can swiftly diagnose patients based on the data it has been trained on.
A significant aspect is the creation of refined data banks that serve as the foundation for these applications. While the development of such technology often takes place in developed nations due to resources and funding, its utility is most pronounced in developing countries like India. Despite financial limitations, India possesses a pool of IT professionals and potential that can contribute to the successful implementation of artificial intelligence. Collaboration between developed and developing nations can thus harness the full potential of this technology.
The concept of the metaverse involves a fusion of virtual and augmented reality, combined with the internet of medicine and artificial intelligence. It allows for innovative medical practices, such as remote teleconsultations, where a patient’s presence can be virtually transported to a doctor’s consultation room. This technology holds immense promise, especially in regions where access to medical facilities is limited, contributing to the realization of precision medicine – treatment tailored to an individual’s unique characteristics.
In essence, artificial intelligence and metaverse provide the means to extend medical expertise beyond geographical boundaries. By establishing centres equipped with virtual technology, we can bridge the gaps in healthcare, bringing advanced medical consultations and treatments to underserved populations. This approach ensures that patients receive personalized, effective, and safe care, thereby revolutionizing the medical landscape and improving health outcomes.
This institute is in Jharkhand, which is largely a tribal-populated state. What are the challenges of a medical institute in a tribal state and how is the institute trying to overcome them?
Establishing more medical institutions like AIIMS was the brainchild of our former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He recognized the unequal distribution of tertiary healthcare in the country and advocated for the creation of additional AIIMS facilities to address this plight. This initiative aimed to provide essential tertiary care services to regions lacking access.
AIIMS Deoghar is strategically located in a region where such specialized healthcare is in dire need. Jharkhand, a state that was created out of Bihar in 2000, is still in a developmental phase. For example, areas like Santhal Pargana, that comprises six districts, is underserved. With nearly 28 percent of Jharkhand’s population being tribal, and approximately 40 percent of them residing in Santhal Pargana, the health challenges within the tribal community are distinct due to their marginalized status.
To address these plights, AIIMS Deoghar has actively engaged with the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan Scheme by the Government of India. Our dedicated team works closely with 10 villages, five of which are tribal, conducting health assessments, offering medical consultations, and imparting comprehensive preventive health training. This encompasses hygiene, sanitation practices, and overall well-being.
Furthermore, recognizing the unique health needs of tribal communities, AIIMS Deoghar recently hosted the first national summit on tribal health. Over two days, 55 experts from across the country, specializing in tribal health, convened to discuss crucial aspects such as nutrition, health challenges, access, and suitable approaches. The Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Arjun Munda, presided the event. He designated AIIMS Deoghar as a center of excellence for tribal health, reinforcing our commitment to this crucial cause.
This recognition has intensified our dedication. We have submitted approximately 18 research projects to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, specifically addressing the health needs of tribal communities. One significant focus is hemoglobinopathies, including the prevalent sickle cell anemia, disproportionately affecting tribal populations. As a designated nodal center, AIIMS Deoghar will spearhead the implementation of the national program on sickle cell anemia, working closely with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
These endeavors underline our unwavering commitment to tribal health since our inception. AIIMS Deoghar remains steadfast in its mission to contribute significantly to the well-being of tribal communities through dedicated research, practical initiatives, and specialized healthcare services.
What are the challenges and benefits institutes like AIIMS might face in places such as Deoghar?
AIIMS Deoghar began in September 2019, making it just three years old, while AIIMS Delhi was established in 1956, making it 65 years old. Although a direct comparison isn’t appropriate due to the differing ages and circumstances of these institutions, there are distinct components – opportunities, and challenges.
Starting with opportunities, when launching a new endeavor, such as AIIMS Deoghar, having a clear vision and defined targets allows for focused and efficient progress.
This stands in contrast to AIIMS Delhi, which may encounter numerous obstacles and resistance when implementing plans. AIIMS Deoghar’s focused approach leads to quicker and better achievements.
AIIMS Deoghar operates in an area that has previously lacked these medical facilities. Even small contributions can significantly impact the local community’s health. Turning to challenges, newer AIIMS institutes, like Deoghar, often face difficulties due to their location in less connected areas. Connectivity and access to education for faculty members and their families can pose obstacles. In AIIMS Deoghar’s case, the establishment of a functional airport has improved connectivity.
These challenges, while present, provide an opportunity for growth and development. Facing and overcoming challenges in the early stages of one’s career leads to greater maturity and preparedness for future efforts.
Further, AIIMS Deoghar visions a future where it plays a decisive role in addressing regional health needs. As the institute ages over the next five to 10 years, it aims to contribute significantly to the community. AIIMS Deoghar focuses on its own unique opportunities and challenges. The absence of competition in Deoghar allows for impactful contributions and growth in ways that institutions in more established settings may not experience.
AIIMS Deoghar recognizes its distinct position as a young institute in a developing area. Challenges are viewed as opportunities for growth, and the institute remains committed to its vision of contributing meaningfully to the community’s well-being.
AIIMS Deoghar is a sixth-generation AIIMS. What are your key priorities for the institute over the next few years?
Firstly, as a government institute, we receive good support and coordination from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This includes oversight from the ministry’s office and our secretary of health. They cooperatively monitor our project’s progress, addressing challenges we encounter and offering guidance to overcome them.
The state government plays a pivotal role. AIIMS facilities are provided to state governments upon request, with the condition that they provide required land, water, electricity, and basic amenities. We are grateful to the Jharkhand government for embracing this opportunity and facilitating the establishment of AIIMS Deoghar. This strategic location addresses a significant lack of specialized medical services within a 200-kilometer radius.
AIIMS Deoghar’s mandate extends beyond only treatment and diagnosis. It encompasses promoting health, preventing disease, treating ailments, and facilitating rehabilitation. Our commitment is to ensure every individual’s journey, from birth to passing, is marked with dignity. We are committed to upholding this mandate, receiving invaluable support from the state government and its district administration.
Despite facing obstacles, we maintain close communication with the state government. While some anticipated measures were delayed, we strive to accelerate progress. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed our advancements, but we are diligently making up for lost time and remain aligned with our targets, crafted in consultation with the ministry.