India needs to invest more in public health, says Dr Swati Piramal

In a conversation with HerStory, Dr Swati Piramal, Vice Chairperson, Piramal Group, talks about her journey into healthcare, the challenges she faced, and what she thinks is the need of the hour when it comes to public health.

India needs to invest more in public health, says Dr Swati Piramal

Wednesday January 04, 2023,

7 min Read

In September 2022, Dr Swati Piramal, Vice Chairperson, Piramal Group, was conferred the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour). The highest French civilian award was in recognition of her outstanding achievements and contribution in the fields of business and industry, science, medicine, art and culture, both nationally and internationally. 

Years back, in 2006, Swati was also awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (Knight of the Order of Merit), France’s second highest civilian honour. 

Dr Swati Piramal is amongst India’s leading scientists and industrialists, whose contribution to innovations, new medicines, and public health has touched many lives. She has played a pivotal role in encouraging business and industry, innovation, art and culture between India and France. 

Swati is also the recipient of the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours. She has championed the cause of women’s leadership, and developed frameworks and policies to support women in leadership roles. Swati, who has served as a member of Prime Minister of India’s Trade Advisory Council and the Scientific Advisory Council, is currently on the Harvard Global Advisory Council.

As director of Piramal Foundation, Swati is involved in developing innovative long-term and scalable solutions to provide impetus to India’s economic and social progress.

She leads the Foundation's efforts towards effective public policy and governance in public health, water and education through private-public-partnership (PPP) models for solutions to contribute to India's SDG goals.

In a conversation with HerStory, Swati talks about her journey, the challenges she faced, and what she thinks is the need of the hour when it comes to public health. 

Edited excerpts from the interview: 

HerStory (HS): Tell us about your journey in healthcare and your learnings so far? 

Swati Piramal (SP): From the early days in my career as a doctor, I was determined to reduce the burden of disease. In 1982, I was moved by the plight of the children of mill workers who had migrated to the Parel area in Mumbai, where we established the Gopikrishna Piramal Memorial Hospital, an ambulatory healthcare centre. 

During those years, everyone was riddled with polio.  So with an aim to spread awareness about this morbidity, I got some medical students together to share ideas on how to prevent polio through songs and street theatre. The ambulatory care centre treated 25,000 children a year and manufactured prosthetic legs to help children walk. Within 10 years, the area was polio-free and there was no need for our prosthetic centre anymore. 

We had proved that prevention was less expensive and better than a costly cure.

That public health lesson was a game-changer for me and then I went on to the Harvard School of Public Health to pursue a degree in public health. 

The lessons our teachers taught us were put to good use over the next few decades when we used public health interventions from Piramal Healthcare and the Piramal Foundation for multiple ailments. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health principles have proved very useful in guiding the fight against this deadly new virus. 

Through Piramal Foundation, we have embarked on creating innovative solutions and establishing avenues that promote primary healthcare in rural India through the Health Management and Research Institute (HMRI).

HS: Tell us about the challenges in this journey. How did you overcome them? 

SP: When I started my career, not many women chose Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as a career option. When I look back on my career of over 40 years, the word “resilience” always comes to mind. Many disagreed with me when I pioneered the field of intellectual property. 

The Indian Pharmaceutical Association ousted me because I had very different views from others. It took them 10 years to change their minds, and everyone started believing in innovation. 

In my opinion, the successes of science are based on the failures of previous scientific research. Albert Einstein, one of the most influential physicists of all time, faced multiple roadblocks initially. Thomas Edison tried a 100 times before inventing the light bulb. 

HS: What does it take to be a leader, and how do you handle conscious and unconscious biases? 

SP:  As a woman leader, I have come across a magnitude of unconscious and conscious biases. Tackling them is not always an easy task; it requires one to be patient. Knowledge has been one of the key elements in countering these biases. Knowledge helps one be better and shows others your merit. 

Other than that, one also needs to keep themselves in check while leading others. I am aware of my own unconscious and conscious biases to create a safe and holistic workplace where growth and productivity are on a rise. Once you have a hold on your own biases, handling other individuals' biases becomes easier. 

HS:  What do you think we need to do more in the field of public health?

SP: India needs to invest more in public health and build nationwide capacity to face future pandemics like COVID-19. Only one or two districts out of 700 in India have dedicated epidemiologists who can discern viruses. I think the immediate priority is to educate healthcare workers and policymakers, not just incoming freshmen.

The central and state governments, philanthropists, and industries should come together with policy initiatives, invest in drug discovery and treatments, and translate results to the last mile as implementation will be key. 

Though the Piramal Foundation was in charge of 25 aspirational districts in India to improve health and education, its national reach and scale helped it operate in all 100 aspirational districts during the COVID-19 surge to reduce deaths. The Foundation now acts as a coordinator or catalyst for the CSR activities of many organisations, NGOs, and charities in underdeveloped areas. 

The initial investments made by the industry in new drug research in the last 20 years are paying off now, since India can develop its own vaccines and new drugs. Drug development is the need of the hour and the current regulatory environment encourages the same.

HS: Apart from public health, you also have an active interest in culinary activities and horticulture. Tell us about this. 

SP: I inherited my culinary expertise from my mother, Arunika Shah, a Cordon Bleu graduate. I like to cook and experiment.  The first time I stepped into the kitchen was when I was married and my sister-in-law asked me to stir what was on the gas…and I burnt it! 

This is what drove me to learn the art of cooking. I took a cooking course at a catering college in Dadar, then a Le Cordon Bleu course. I still remember the first preparation was a trifle pudding. 

I also love to indulge in traditional food. There are many traditional Indian dishes that have been passed down from previous generations and need to be passed on to the next generation. 

Other than that, I am also passionate about gardening.  My study overlooks the fairy garden I built. Beautiful birds such as parrots, yellow-eared myna, and sparrows fly here. Frangipani and bougainvillea are blooming now, and my fruit trees have little sweet limes. I envisaged this fairy garden on a theme and have been adding plants that complement it. 

HS: What are your key focus areas going forward and why?

SP: I am convinced that a nation's progress is determined by science, innovation, and economic development. In my opinion, rapid advances in science and innovation are benefiting humanity all over the world. 

As the Director of Piramal Foundation, I have been closely involved in the development of innovative, long-term, and scalable solutions to solve the critical barriers to unlocking India's economic potential. We are also working closely with the central and state governments, NITI Aayog, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to enable successful public-private partnerships and effectively contribute to achieving India's Sustainable Development Goals. 

India, like other developing countries, faces public health challenges. We must strive to develop innovative, long-term, and scalable solutions that will further boost our socio-economic progress. 

Edited by Teja Lele