Millennium Post

Equal healthcare still a distant dream

Most Indians, who pride themselves in being part of the world’s largest democracy, skip a heartbeat when they read about India’s grossly inadequate healthcare infrastructure. Not enough hospital beds (less than nine for 10,000 patients). Not enough doctors (just seven per 10,000 patients). Not enough medicines. Not enough preventive healthcare and equally inadequate post-hospitalisation home healthcare.

And reading about women delivering babies on roadsides, patients being turned away by hospitals and cases of victims blinded after botched up eye surgeries can be plain depressing.

Agreed, India has had to prioritise its welfare and social sector deliverables in the last decades. Food and education took priority over health care. Basic services like water, sanitation, and sewage systems at best remained patchy except in some larger towns. Village ponds continue to serve drinking, washing, and bathing water needs of humans and their livestock.

Access to government funded primary health care centres and hospitals for succour to the poor in the far flung places often proved to be woefully inadequate. Private doctors provided a bulk of the primary healthcare needs of those who could afford it.

Some of the recent announcements by the government related to health care -- several new All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, more centres of excellence in healthcare, installation of dialysis units at district hospitals in a PPP mode, lower customs, excise duty for dialysis equipment, removal of VAT on mammography machines and consumables in Maharashtra, on the spot examination for breast cancer for women visiting the gynaecology and dental OPDs at the government hospitals in Punjab, 10,000 more hospital beds in Delhi, Jan Aushdhi stores for free -- are both encouraging and worthy.

However, a question I ask myself, like many other Indians, is if this is enough? How many more layers of band aids do we need to fix an already under provided healthcare system for the needy, underprivileged, and underserved -- and we have 400 million of them. The public healthcare system is clearly underprovided. Ironically instead of growing, healthcare expenditure has dropped from 4.5 percent of the GDP in 2004-05 to 4 percent in 2015. And only 1 percent is contributed by the public sector, among the lowest globally.

Reports suggest that the bulk of the healthcare budgets go in salaries of doctors and staff. Budget heads for CapEx, consumables, running and maintenance expenses for expensive equipment and training that work out of silos lead to situations where the equipment is underutilised as patients continue to cry for medical facilities.

Healthcare needs a bigger share. India needs to redefine its vision for healthcare. The plan must also focus on fixing issues of providing clean safe water. In our zest to build toilets as part of Swacchh Bharat campaign, it’s essential not to forget that we also need a robust sewage system that works and is built to last.

My limited experience in building a technology-based clinical research organisation and now building a technology-led home healthcare business tells me that scaling up must rest its foundations on the following five pillars:

Capacity Building: Preparing enough doctors, technicians, paramedics, nursing staff that we need not today but in 2025. The process of preparing fresh medical graduates and specialists takes a minimum of 5-10 years -- an area that needs activation and acceleration push right away.

Healthcare Infrastructure: We need to modernise and build adequate health care infrastructure at the district level by funding it adequately. Seventy percent of India still lives in rural areas with limited access to hospitals and clinics. And seventy percent of healthcare expenditure in India is out of pocket (with insurance still not penetrated enough). Obviously, once the modern facilities are in place the government needs to staff them with trained doctors, specialists, paramedical, and nursing staff. What will make the difference is creating a well-run hospital system by focusing on building a motivated, committed system that delivers with empathy and care.

Technology Induction: Any plan to revamp the health care must rely on appropriate induction of technology. From equipment that is at the cutting edge of technology, to use of Information Technology for Lab Tests, X-Rays, and CAT Scans to Dialysis machines to Surgical Robots, the hospitals must have all of them. This will allow premier healthcare institutions to focus on research and offer consultation and mentoring to doctors in district hospitals seamlessly. Today, wireless technology, electronic health records, wearable sensors make it possible to remotely deliver healthcare and these must be part of the infrastructure push.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Startups in the healthcare and wellness space with problem-solving solutions can help in providing accessible healthcare. There have been significant PE investments in the healthcare startup space, giving birth to innovative delivery models. But equally, there should be more PPPs and policies that should give impetus to start-ups in the healthcare ecosystem.

Home Healthcare: Fast paced work environment leading to work-life imbalance is throwing up newer health challenges. India’s ageing population is not doing any good by throwing up increasingly the incidence of Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Stroke, and Cardiac issues. It is time for families to brace for longer life-spans of elders and parents. Caregivers, especially in nuclear and single child families, could face challenges that no one has imagined.

We need to build reliable home healthcare infrastructure, anticipate the growing need for old age homes as also focus on building a cadre of doctors specialising in geriatrics. The government needs to set its eyes on building an integrated plan which completely transforms healthcare system and one that works for an average citizen.  

(Nidhi Saxena is chief executive of Zoctr Health, a home healthcare aggregator. The views expressed
are strictly personal.)
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