Access To Comprehensive Healthcare Merits Multipronged Approach

Since the turn of the new millennium, several high profile and flagship health schemes are being announced in India by the Union successive governments. Some of the important ones will include the National Health MissionRashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) - a Health Insurance Scheme for the Below Poverty Line families and now Ayushman Bharat – National Health Protection Mission - expected to cover over 100 million poor and vulnerable families providing coverage up to 500,000 rupees per family per year for hospitalization related to secondary and tertiary care.

Besides, the Mental Health Care Act 2017 has been operational since last year. It was passed by the Rajya Sabha in August 2016, and the Lok Sabha on March 2017. The right to mental health care is the core of the Act.

Each of these announcements look good on paper and was accompanied with lofty government promises. Riding on the waves of hypes thus created, public expectations increased commensurately for getting easy access to a comprehensive and affordable health care, which now includes ‘Mental Health’ as well. Unfortunately, the Gordian knot in Indian public healthcare space continued to exist. As various reports  indicate, for example, one that appeared on November 27, 2018, – even Ayushman Bharat is apparently moving towards the same detection driven by some critical basic issues.

Consequently, scores of people still do not have adequate and affordable access to basic health care, including essential drugs – clamping price control notwithstanding. The government knows it well, as it increases vigil on drug pricing. Pharma industry also feels its scorching heat. Overall storyline remains mostly unchanged. The vicious cycle continues.

In this article, I shall dwell on a system-approach to delivering comprehensive public health care. The key objective is trying to figure out what is the core problem that most of these schemes are either not addressing or doing it with a ‘band-aid’ approach. One of the key requirements for improving access to health care significantly, I reckon, is a clear understanding on the characterizations of the critical stages of healthcare access and their dimensions, from the patients’ perspective.

However, before doing so, let me glance upon some health care related current and important facts, as uploaded in the government’s National Health Profile 2018.  

National Health Profile 2018:

As available in the National Health Profile (NHP) of India – 2018, following are some of the important facts, which are worth noting:

  • In the current budget year, public (government) spending on health is just 1.3 per cent of the GDP against the global average for the same at 6 percent.
  • Just one doctor serves a population of 11,000 people, which is way below W.H.O recommended a doctor to population ratio of 1:1,000. The scenario is even worse in many states, such asBihar with 1: 28,391, Uttar Pradesh records 1:19,962, Jharkhand with 1:18,518, Madhya Pradesh shows 1:16,996 and Chhattisgarh at 1:15,916.
  • Per capita public expenditure by the government on health, stands at Rs 1,112 that comes to Rs 3 per day. This puts India below other low-income nations like the Maldives (9.4), Bhutan (2.5), Sri Lanka (1.6) and Nepal (1.1).

These numbers provide just a flavor of the Indian healthcare space, as it stands today. Some may of course talk about legacy factor, but to move ahead more important for all is what is happening today in this regard. Yes, one more health mission, as mentioned above, has been launched on September 25, 2018 with similar hype as the past ones, if not more. Only the future will tell us what changed it brings to the ground. That said, I am not very upbeat about it either, as providing a comprehensive health care access has always been multi-factorial and will remain so. Let me now dwell on why I am saying so.

Understanding health care access:

The 2013 research paper on “Improving Healthcare Access in India” by erstwhile IMS Consulting group (now IQVIA), said that ‘health care access characterizes 3 stages,’ which from the patient’s perspective has 4 key dimensions. In the Indian context, these three stages are:

  • Accessing care: Physical reach and location
  • Receiving care: Availability/capacity, Quality/functionality
  • Paying for care: Affordability

Accordingly, healthcare access is a function of 4 key aspects:

  • Physical reaches to health care facility
  • Availability of doctors and medicines in those places
  • Quality of care provided by these centers
  • Affordability of treatment, if available there

Access to healthcare is slowly improving, but far from being enough:

All the above schemes of the government are primarily focused on ‘paying for care’ stage and ‘affordability’ of treatment, including drugs. To a limited extent it makes sense as the above study vindicates that ‘availability’ and ‘affordability’ have good impact on ‘access to health care’.

Since the inception of NHM, this approach, no doubt, has made some improvement in the overall access to health care in the country, as many studies indicate. The IMS Consulting study also observes that compared to 2004, more patients received free medicines in outpatient care in 2013 – over 50 percent of patients going to Government hospitals say that they get free medicines there. However, the outcomes of the same across the Indian states vary quite a lot.

Inadequate healthcare infrastructure and physical reach in rural areas:

Having noted that, grossly inadequate availability of public health care infrastructure – or when available physical access to many of those from remote villages, coupled with lack of availability of required doctors, paramedics, nurses and medicines in those dispensaries – often become major issues. Moreover, their capacity to providing quality care, besides longer waiting time, often pushes many – either to remain virtually untreated or to go to private care centers costing much more.

The study finds that such movement of people from public to private facilities leads to higher health care costs. Consequently, high usage of private channels drives up the out of pocket (oop) cost of treatment. Some of the details are as follows:

  • 74 percent of patients sought private consultation
  • 85 percent of ‘oop’ spending on health care was in the private sector
  • 81percent of patients incurred ‘oop’ expenditure for medicines

Curiously, 35 percent of patients in the study rated public health facilities as – good. Whereas an overwhelming 81 percent said so for private facilities. Nevertheless, associated high ‘oop’ expenditure for the same often becomes an economic burden. The large number of patients with chronic ailments, are the major sufferers.

Application of mobile-health could help improve access:

On improving access to health care in India, an interesting ‘Review Article’ titled, “Applications of m-Health and e-Health in Public Health Sector: The Challenges and Opportunities”, appeared in the International Journal of Medicine and Public Health, April-June, 2018 issue, makes some thought-provoking observations.

It says, while the use of mobile phone (MPs) has become commonplace in many industry sectors, such as banking, railways, airlines – the public health sector has been somewhat slow in adopting MP technologies into routine operations. Its innovative use can benefit patients and providers alike by enhancing access to health care.Smartphones’ usefulness in the treatment of chronic diseases – for example, monitoring of blood pressure, blood sugar, body weight, electro- cardiograph (ECG), has already been established.

The paper also suggests, mobile health (m-H) is more effective when tailored to specific social, ethnic, demographic group using colloquial language. If implemented craftily and systematically, m-H can revolutionize the scenario of the health care delivery system, in many ways. Optimal doctor-patient engagement policy for m-H needs to be formulated, outlining a legal framework and with multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Mental health still largely ignored:

Another important aspect of comprehensive health care is ‘Mental Health’, as more than 60 million Indians suffer from mental disorders, suicides being one of the major killers in India (Source: W.H.O, IndiaSpend). However, it is disturbing to note that awareness and access to mental health treatment, especially in the hinterland of the country, continue to remain ignored. Increasing incidences of farmers’ suicides, for example, notwithstanding.

This was further elaborated by the IndiaSpend report of January 30, 2018, which underscored:“Allocation to the National Program for Mental Health has been stagnant for the past three years. At Rs 350 million, the program received 0.07 percent of India’s 2017-18 health budget.This is despite the fact that an estimated 10-20 million Indians (1-2% of the population) suffer from severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and nearly 50 million (5 percent of the population) – almost equal to the population of South Africa–suffer from common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.”

The report further highlights that, notwithstanding 15 suicides every hour and 133,623 suicides in 2015, India is short of 66,200 psychiatrists and 269,750 psychiatric nurses. It is also noteworthy, while a frugal sum of 0.06 percent of India’s health budget is for mental health care, the same for even Bangladesh stands at 0.44 percent (Source: W.H.O, IndiaSpend).

Conclusion:

From the above perspective, I reckon, although access to health care in India, except ‘mental health care’, is improving at a modest pace, it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near adequate, as on date. A holistic approach for a comprehensive health care access to all, through the public health system, seems to be the need of the hour.

That said, currently India is not meeting the minimum W.H.O recommendations for healthcare workforce and also in bed density. A large section of the population continues to lack affordable access to quality health care. Moreover, the importance of mental health is still unknown to many in the country.

Thus, in tandem with addressing all the three stages and four key dimensions of comprehensive health care access, it is imperative to leverage new technology-based       e-healthcare and digital devices like m-Health. Together, these will help provide and facilitate not just quality care to patients, but also complement the healthcare infrastructure, including doctors and paramedics – making quality and affordable health care accessible to all.

As I said in my article, titled ‘Mental Health Problem: A Growing Concern in The Healthcare Space of India, the ‘Mental Health Care Bill’, which is now an Act, redefines mental illness to better understand various conditions that are persistent among the Indian population.This is a good development, as it aims at protecting the rights of persons with mental illness and promote access to mental health care. Since, the current ground reality in this area is a cause of great concern, when will it be effectively implemented for all, is the all-important question.

It is imperative for all concerned to understand that improving access to comprehensive health care is multi-factorial issue. Therefore, it needs nothing less than a well-thought out multi-pronged approach for an effective solution.

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.

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