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Millennium Post

How patents are robbing the poor

Come Diwali, the greatest Indian celebration, and a considerable number of people all over the country get burns and many die of burn-related injuries. This Diwali, a small diya kept near a staircase, in twenty seconds straight, had my aunt (my brother-in-law and fellow TSI columnist Prashanto Bannerjee’s mother) in its deadly wrap. Despite her saree being made of cotton, and despite my brother-in-law noticing the burning saree instantly and putting off the flames with buckets of water within twenty seconds, she got 65% burns – and at 72 years of age, that is dangerous... very dangerous! When we reached Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi – where we finally admitted her – the doctor told us that if she had been of Prashanto’s age, 36, he would have given her only a 20% chance of survival with the 3rd degree burns that she had.

But then, there’s a small background story. Prashanto’s mother was actually taken initially to Max Super Speciality Hospital. To our surprise, we were told by Max doctors to get her admitted somewhere else since they didn’t treat burn injuries… The quick research we did after our visit to Max gave us a shocking statistic. In Delhi, the capital of India, there are only two hospitals capable of treating burn injuries (the other, apart from Apollo, being Safdarjung).

If Delhi is like this, then the average Indian city has more or less no hospital to handle such cases!
Anyway, once she was admitted to the ICU at Apollo and we got talking to the doctor, his statements shocked us further. He said that a burn injury is a poor man’s injury and ergo didn’t have many hospitals as takers. It should have been quite obvious actually: it is the poor woman – and not really the man – who gets burnt when her saree catches fire from the kitchen stove kept on the floor. And when such poor women get burnt, it matters less whether they survive or not.

Therefore, no hospital has been interested in investing in a burn injury centre! What was sadder was that when I researched on the net and read about the tremendous advancement of medicines for burn injuries (that have reduced chances of mortality to negligible even in severe burn cases), I realised that we still lived in a country that, despite the spectacular international medical advancements, continues to have the highest number of people dying of completely curable burns.

Apollo, of course, is a very rich man’s place. And they were quite forthright about that – treating Prashanto’s mother would cost up to Rs.90,000 per night, with medicines alone costing up to Rs.60,000 per night. No wonder, a treatment centre for a poor man has barely any takers. In fact, even if your nearby hospital were to start a burn injury center, chances are that even the rich man wouldn’t be able to bear the expenses.

I have always been very excited about movements like copyleft (the anti-copyright movement) and have believed that one of the best things that the internet has done is to open the doors to zillions of gigabytes of knowledge-ware to mankind free of cost – from software to top end research studies. And I so hope that patent laws across the world too are drastically changed soon for the betterment of mankind.

In fact, in his book called Sex, Science and Profits, professor Terrence Kealey argues how there is absolutely no need to give patent rights to anyone for 30 years, when in reality the costs of research studies with high profits can be recovered back in three years on an average.

By exploiting such a mindless number of years of patent rights, companies fool us on the costs of research and rob the poor worldwide. Patents not only keep essential medicines expensive but also slow down innovation.

History is evidence that the moment the patent right over a technology has concluded, there has been an immediate increase in innovation in that area – like in the case of the steam engine.

It’s time that we come up with a humane formula for deciding the number of years that companies can be granted patent rights – or we cut the patent protection period drastically short to suit the interests of the world and especially its poor, instead of keeping patents favourable towards the rich corporations and their profits.  And in medical sciences, this must be done with immediate effect.

Additionally, policies similar to the Indian National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012 – which puts a cap on the prices of 652 popular medicines – must be notified with an immediate effect and should necessarily be expanded to include not just life-saving high cost patented medical drugs, but also high cost medical treatments and operations.

In the meantime, as Prashanto’s mother fights a brave battle on her 30th day in hospital, friends, when anyone you know of goes through an unfortunate fire accident and gets burnt, remember this: just rushing her to the nearest hospital might be of no use – for it’s considered a poor man’s injury for which your nearest hospital, even if it’s a Max, might have no treatment facility.

Arindam Chaudhuri is a management guru and director of IIPM Think Tank
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