A Tipping Point For Robust Healthcare System In India

“Given the popular uptake of universal health coverage reforms elsewhere in Asia, the Feb 4 elections may be a tipping point for health in India. For example, in 2012, Joko Widodo was elected Governor of Jakarta. He launched popular UHC reforms in the capital and 2 years later was elected president. In 2016, voters in the USA and UK supported politicians prepared to act on the concerns of the electorate. If health becomes a populist cause in India, rather than a political inconvenience, then the country might finally be liberated to achieve health outcomes commensurate with its economic and technical achievements”, is exactly what appeared in the editorial of The Lancet, titled “Health in India, 2017,” published on January 14, 2017.

The Lancet Editor further reiterated: “Because states have responsibility for health, the elections will raise the importance of access to quality, affordable health care in India, regardless of the electoral outcome. It is a debate that needs to be fostered.”

This is, of course, a ‘top-down’ approach for healthcare, as seen in several countries across the world. However, I have recently deliberated another approach in the same area on – why a ‘bottom-up’ demand is not forthcoming in India, in an article titled ‘Healthcare in India And Hierarchy of Needs’, published in this blog on November 06, 2017.

No one, including any Government, would possibly ever argue – why shouldn’t a robust public healthcare system in a country, including the availability of reasonably affordable drugs, assume as much priority as economic growth and education?

On the contrary, Governments in several other countries, including those with a well-functioning Universal Healthcare (UHC) in place, are trying to ensure even better and greater access to healthcare for all, by various different means. In this article, I shall focus on it, in a holistic way.

Exploring a bottom-up approach:

It is increasingly becoming more evident that a bottom-up approach would help yield greater success in this area, with a win-win outcome. It will involve taking the stakeholders on board in the process of framing and implementing healthcare projects within a given time-frame. The question then arises, why is it still not happening on the ground in India the way it should? Just floating a discussion paper on draft projects and policies, for stakeholders’ inputs, isn’t enough any longer. There is a need to move much beyond that in making these decisions more inclusive.

Various successive Governments may have some justifiable funding related or other pressing issues to offer a robust public healthcare system in India. But, none of these will be an insurmountable barrier, if more number of heads of astute stakeholders are involved in ferreting out an effective and implementable India-specific solution in this area, within a pre-determined timeline.

There are examples of remarkable progress in this direction, by involving stakeholders in charting out a workable pathway, agreed by all, and jointly implemented in a well-calibrated and time bound manner. Equally important is to make this plan known to the public, so that the Government can be held accountable, if it falls short of this promise, or even misses any prescribed timeline.

‘The Accelerated Access Pathway’ initiative:

Let me now draw an interesting example of involving stakeholders by the Government to improve patient access to expensive and innovative drugs. This example comes from a country that is running one of the oldest and most efficient UHC in the world – the United Kingdom.

Despite a robust UHC being in place, the National Health Service (NHS) in England had a perennial problem to make ‘breakthrough’ medicines available early to NHS patients. The British pharma industry reportedly had a long-held complaint that patients in England get a raw deal when it comes to accessing the latest medicines.

According to a reported study by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and endorsed by the charity Cancer Research UK, average British patients get lower access to leading cancer medicines than their European counterparts.

To resolve this issue effectively, the British Government launched ‘The Accelerated Access Pathway initiative’. Former GSK global CEO Sir Andrew Witty was named as the chairman of this collaborative body. The scheme, launching from April 2018, will see approvals of cutting-edge treatments for conditions like cancer, dementia and diabetes dramatically speeding up. The pathway is expected to get ‘breakthrough’ medicines to NHS patients up to four years earlier, as the report, published in ‘The Telegraph’ on November 3, 2017 indicates.

It is believed that ‘Accelerated Access Collaborative’ initiative would benefit the NHS patients, as well as deliver significant long-term savings for the health service.

Similar initiatives may be effective in India:

Taking collaborative initiatives, such as above, may not be absolutely new in India. However, in a real sense, Indian initiatives are no more than top-down approaches, and not in any way be termed as bottom-up. Moreover, these usually originate in the form of Government discussion papers inviting comments from the stakeholders.

Moreover, in the healthcare policy related arena, there is no subsequent firm resolve by the Government to chart out a clear pathway for its effective implementation, with specific timelines indicated for each step, besides assigning individual accountability for delivering the intended deliverables.

Any such decisive move by the government, keeping all stakeholders engaged is quite rare to come across in our country, as yet. Thus, carefully selected outside expert group suggestions based – the National Health Policies also have met with the same fate, without possibly any exception, thus far.

Two illustrations:

I shall illustrate the above point with two top-of-mind examples. The first one is a report – the ‘High Level Expert Group (HLEG)’ report on ‘Universal Health Coverage (UHC)’ for India, submitted to the erstwhile Planning Commission in November 2011. The other example is of a policy – the National Health Policy (NHP) 2017, which is in place now, based on a report by an expert committee constituted by the Government.

Let me now briefly recapitulate both – one by one, as follows:

The report on ‘Universal Health Coverage (UHC)’ for India

The ‘High Level Expert Group (HLEG)’ on ‘Universal Health Coverage (UHC)’ was constituted by the Planning Commission of India in October 2010, with the mandate of developing a framework for providing easily accessible and affordable health care to all Indians.

While financial protection for healthcare was the principal objective of this initiative, it was recognized that the delivery of UHC also requires the availability of adequate health infrastructure, skilled health workforce, access to affordable drugs and technologies to ensure the entitled level and quality of healthcare is delivered to every citizen.

The report further highlighted, the design and delivery of health programs and services call for efficient management systems as well as active engagement of empowered communities.

The original terms of reference directed the HLEG to address all of these needs of UHC. Since the social determinants of health have a profound influence not only on the health of populations, but also on the ability of individuals to access healthcare, the HLEG decided to include a clear reference to them.

Nevertheless, this report was never acted upon for its effective implementation. Now, with the change in Government, HLEG recommendations for UHC in India seems to have lost its relevance, altogether.

The National Health Policy (NHP) 2017

The new Government that subsequently came to power, decided to start afresh with a brand new and modern National Health Policy in India, replacing the previous one framed 15 years ago in 2002. NHP 2017 promises healthcare in an ‘assured manner’ to all, by addressing the challenges in the changing socioeconomic, epidemiological and technological scenarios. Accordingly, the National Health Policy 2017 was put in place, early this year.

To achieve the objectives, NHP 2017 intends to raise public healthcare expenditure to 2.5 percent of GDP from the current 1.4 percent. Interestingly, no visible signal about the seriousness on implementation of this laudable initiative has reached the public, just yet.

Let’s now wait for the next year’s budget to ascertain whether the policy objective of ‘healthcare in an assured manner to all’ would continue to remain a pipe dream, as happened in earlier budget proposals. It is noteworthy that union budget allocation on health did not go up, at least, in the last 3 years, despite categorical assurances by the ministers on increasing focus on healthcare.

Significant increase in both the union and the state governments budgetary allocation for healthcare is necessary. This is because, besides many other intents, NHP 2017 intends to provide free diagnostics, free drugs and free emergency and essential healthcare services in all public hospitals for healthcare access and financial protection to all.

Universal Healthcare is the core point in both:

The core focus of both – the HLEG report and also the NHP 2017, is UHC in India, but with different approaches. When HLEG report was not translated into reality, the 2014 general election in India was widely expected to be the tipping point for a new public healthcare landscape in the country fulfilling this promise. More so, as the public healthcare system is generally in a shamble throughout the country, except in a handful of states.

Just as in the United States, Europe or Japan, “if health becomes a populist cause in India, rather than a political inconvenience, then the country might finally be liberated to achieve health outcomes commensurate with its economic and technical achievements,” as the above Lancet editorial commented.  Giving yet another perspective, I also wrote in my blog post, titled ‘Healthcare in India And Hierarchy of Needs’ on November 06, 2017, why has it not happened in India, as on date.


What happens, if the Indian Government too adopts a major collaborative approach, such as ‘The Accelerated Access Pathway’ initiatives, involving all stakeholders – including the pharma and device industry leaders to implement UHC in the country – part by part?

The relevant counter question to this should not be – Will that work? Of course, it will, if the Government wants to. On the contrary, it could be a potential ‘Tipping Point’ to create a robust public healthcare landscape in India. Thus, the real question that we should ask ourselves: Why won’t it work, when all stakeholders are on board to pave the pathway for an efficient Universal Healthcare system in India, in a win-win way?

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.