Rural India’s search for healthcare

With a wound that refuses to heal on her shoulder, nine-month-old Ruksana lives with her parents - and hundreds of others patients from across India - on the footpath outside the Metro station of Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

 After waiting six months amid the noise, dust, and traffic, they finally have an appointment with an AIIMS doctor - a year from now. Ruksana, a quiet, unsmiling child with kohl-lined eyes, and her parents journeyed about 1,023 km from East Champaran, Bihar, for medical help.

 They embody recently released data - from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) - that 48 percent of overnight trips made by millions of Indians from rural areas (25 percent in urban areas) are for medical purposes, their journey reflecting the growing failures of the public health system in the world’s fastest-growing economy.

More than half of India’s rural population uses private healthcare, which is four times as costly as public healthcare, and can cost the poorest 20 percent of Indians more than 15 times their average monthly expenditure, another NSSO survey found last year.

Ruksana’s father, Mohammed Kalimuddin, 38, is a farmer. He has spent Rs 60,000 ($900)during the family’s six-month-sojourn in Delhi. That includes Rs 24,000 on failed medical treatment. Since Kalimuddin’s average annual earnings are no more than Rs 40,000, the gap has been bridged by his savings.

People like Kalimuddin make the journey to Delhi because they are rarely assured of quality healthcare near home. More than 90 percent of the treatment for childhood diarrhoea and pneumonia in Bihar - the leading causes of death among Indian children - was found to be incorrect, IndiaSpend reported in February 2015.

Healthcare expenditure pushes families into debt

Kalimuddin’s story is shared by several other families who live outside the AIIMS Metro station, as they try to reach a doctor. They do not have money to stay in a hotel or rent a room. The money spent by Kalimuddin is almost four times the average expenditure of Rs 15,336 per health trip, as per the NSSO reports.

Up to 86 percent of the rural population and 82 percent of the urban population is without health-expenditure support, and about 12 percent of the urban and 13 percent of the rural population got health insurance through the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (National Health Insurance Scheme) or similar plans, IndiaSpend reported in July 2015.

Inadequate public healthcare and healthcare expenses push an additional 39 million people back into poverty in India every year, a Lancet paper said.

Greatest proportion of medical migrants from Bihar

More than half of overnight trips in Kalimuddin’s state - 581 of every 1,000 - Bihar, were for medical reasons, sixth-highest among all Indian states and Union Territories. West Bengal (633/1,000) and Assam (599/1,000) were the states that reported the highest number of trips made for medical reasons from their rural areas.

In contrast, 211 and 250 of every 1,000 trips from rural areas of Delhi and Meghalaya were for medical purposes, the lowest in India.

With 104 million people, Bihar is India’s third-most populous state, and has the third-highest percentage of people (33.7 percent) living below the poverty line. After Bihar, the largest numbers of such people are in Chhattisgarh (39.9 percent) and Jharkhand (36.9 percent).

Although 18 states with poor health indicators - called “high-focus states” - increased health spending in anticipation of cutbacks on Centrally sponsored health schemes, smaller states have cut health spending because they did not have the money, IndiaSpend reported in February 2016.

The northeastern region requires over eight lakh additional hospital beds to tackle the inaccessibility of healthcare services for the rural population, according to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Public Health Foundation of India.

India’s poorer states have health indicators that are worse than many nations poorer than them, and India’s healthcare spending is the lowest among BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) nations, as are its health indicators.

Struggling: Public health infrastructure in India

The medical migrants outside AIIMS and the journeys they make reflect the low priority India accords to healthcare. Some indicators:

* Of 4,000-odd multi-crore infrastructure projects in the country, only nine (0.21 percent) are in the health sector, IndiaSpend reported in December 2015.

*Public health centres across India’s rural areas - 25,308 in 29 states and seven Union Territories - are short of more than 3,000 doctors, IndiaSpend reported in February 2016.

* There is an 83 percent shortage of specialist medical professionals in community health centres (CHCs), IndiaSpend reported in September 2015.

* India has seven doctors for every 10,000 people, according to a 2012 WHO report. The ratio should be 1:600.

* Over the last two years, the money allocated for key Centrally-sponsored social schemes - Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and National Health Mission - declined 10 percent and 3.6 percent.

The plan: Outsource healthcare

Currently, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog is working on a vision document on public health. 

Some salient features:

* All rural MBBS doctors should be trained as family physicians with the government paying for each patient so treated.

* Incentives to low-cost private alternatives such as NGO-run institutions and missionary-run hospitals to bolster government-run institutions.

* Promote competition between private and government hospitals at the secondary level, which involves services of medical specialists, while primary centres are usually single-physician clinics, usually with facilities for minor surgeries.

In a meeting in April 2016, the NITI Aayog called for outsourcing primary healthcare to private doctors. It does not appear that journeys like Ruksana’s will end anytime soon. 

(In arrangement with, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism 
platform. Devanik Saha is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend.)

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