Access to Medicine: Losing Track in Cacophony

Indian Healthcare space is by and large an arena, where perceptions prevail over the changing reality in many important areas. Consequently, fierce discourse in those areas mostly gives rise to a cacophony of ‘Your Perceptions Against Mine’.

It is intriguing, why even in some well-hyped research studies of recent times, multiple interpretations are made not based on specific analytics-based numbers, but around critical data gaps and then the vital ‘conclusion’ is craftily packaged in a particular way to reinforce a set of perceptions and view points.

Serious discourse on ‘Access to Medicine’ in India often falls in these data crevasses, resulting nothing more than abject cynicism and expert sermons sans accountability from all quarters. Suggestions for precise quantification of magnitude of the problem, so far as ‘Access to Medicine’ is concerned, and then measuring the same periodically for sustainable corrective measures, obviously fade away in the din of multiple shrill voices, heavily loaded with self-perceptions attempting to score favorable brownie points.

A quantifiable number on overall ‘access to medicines’ remains illusive:

A quantifiable recent number on overall ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India, which could well form the base to measure progress of the country in this critical area subsequently, still remains illusive.

It is an irony, no one seems to know today what is the current ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India, in real term.

A recent study too goes around it, but NOT into it:

A 2012 industry sponsored study carried out by IMS Consulting, instead of giving just one number for overall ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India, went around it by reiterating the obvious that ‘access’ has 4 dimensions such as, Physical Reach, Availability/Capacity, Quality/Functionality and Affordability.

That is fine. No issue. However, the much sought after number of overall ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ still remained illusory in this study too. Interestingly, there are no numbers available to public for each of the above 4 important dimensions either. Thus the cacophony got shriller.

Clutching on to ‘Dinosaurian data’ in modern times:

Against the above backdrop, like many others, both local and global, even the honorable President of India on January 16, 2013, while addressing the ASSOCHAM 10th Knowledge Millennium Summit, quoted the ‘World Medicines Situation of 2004 report’, the base year of which is reportedly 1999. This study indicated, ‘only 35% of the population of India, against 53% in Africa and 85% in China has access to modern medicines’.

Thus in the absence of any recently updated number, the ‘Dinosaurian data’ of 1999 (published in 2004) is being considered relevant by many even in 2013, including the esteemed industry body that probably provided those irrelevant data to the president of India’s office for his speech, at the beginning of this year.

Importance of capturing today’s ‘Access’ data to provide ‘Healthcare to all’:

There should not be even an iota of doubt that the above reported scenario has changed quite significantly, at least, during the last decade in India, making the 1999 (published in 2004) ‘Access to Medicines’ numbers irrelevant, having no sense whatsoever in 2013.

To drive home this point, I shall now focus on just three sets of parameters, besides many others, to vindicate my comment on ‘dinosaurian data’. These parameters are as follows:

  1. Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in per-capita expenditure on healthcare from 2006-11
  2. Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of the domestic pharmaceutical industry in this period
  3. Quantum of increase in use of public healthcare facilities

1. Per capita Healthcare expenditure from 2006-11:

Year US $
1999 18.2
2004 28.7
2006 33.0
2007 39.9
2008 42.7
2009 43.6
2010 51.4
2011 59.1

(Source WHO Data)

The above table vey clearly highlights that in 1999, the base year of the above study, per capita healthcare expenditure in India was just US$ 18.2. The figure rose to US$ 28.7 in year 2004, when that study was published. The number reached to US $ 59.1 in 2011. This reflects a double digit Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in per capita healthcare expenditure of the country from the 2004 study to 2011.

No doubt, this number is still much less than many other countries. Nevertheless, in 2013, per capita healthcare expenditure in India will be even more, indicating significant increase in ‘Access’ as compared to 2004.

2. Growth of domestic pharmaceutical market

According to the PwC – CII report titled “India Pharma Inc.: Gearing up for the next level of growth”, the domestic drug market has been clocking a CAGR of more than 15 percent over the last five years. Thus, high growth of the Indian Pharmaceutical Market (IPM) since the last decade, both from the urban and the rural areas, would certainly signal towards significant increase in the domestic consumption of medicines. Moreover, fast growing rural and semi-urban markets would also clearly support the argument in favor of increasing ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India.

A back of the envelope calculation:

Improvement in access as compared to what ‘World Medicines Situation of 2004 report’ had highlighted, may not have a linear relationship to the volume growth of the industry during this period. However, a large part of this growth could indeed be attributed to increase in overall consumption of drugs, leading to improvement in access to medicines in India.

For example, out of the reported 15 percent CAGR of the IPM, if one attributes just 8 percent volume growth/year to increased access to drugs, a back of the envelope calculation would indicate that during last nine years over the base year of 2004, the access to medicines has improved at least to 70 percent of the population, if not more, and has NOT remained just at 35 percent, as many tend to establish a point or two by quoting the above dated report.

Unfortunately, even the Government of India does not seem to be aware of this gradually improving trend, as evidenced in the honorable President of India’s speech in 2013, as quoted above. Official communications of the government also keep quoting the outdated statistics stating that 65 percent of the population of India does not have ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ even today.

Be that as it may, around 30 percent of Indian population would still perhaps not have ‘Access to Medicines’ in India. This issue needs immediate attention of the policy makers and can possibly be achieved through effective implementation of a holistic public health policy model like, ‘Universal Health Care (UHC)’.

3. Increase in use of public healthcare facilities:

According to a study done by the IMS Consulting Group in 2012, in rural India, which constitutes around 70 percent of the total 1.2 billion populations of India, usage of Government facilities for Out Patient (OP) care has increased from 22 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2012, mainly due to the impact of National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). This increase will have significant impact in reducing ‘Out of pocket (OoP)’ healthcare expenses of the rural poor.

Overall impact on some key health indicators: 

The same 2012 study of IMS Consulting highlights that an objective and comprehensive assessment of healthcare access in India was last undertaken in 2004, through a survey performed by the National Survey Sample Organization (NSSO). 
The survey reported on multiple parameters related to healthcare, including morbidity in broad age groups, immunization status, episodes of outpatient/ inpatient treatment across geography/ income segments together with expenditure on treatment. These measures, the study indicates, were taken collectively to indicate the status of healthcare access.

According to this report, the Government of India had undertaken multiple programs to improve healthcare access. These programs have addressed numerous issues, in varying proportion, that are linked to healthcare access, including lack of infrastructure, high cost of treatment, and the quality and availability of treatment. Some of these programs have been enormously successful: for example, India is a polio-free country today, the study reinforces.

The study also highlights significant progress in some basic healthcare indicators. The examples cited are as follows:

  • Maternal mortality rate has decreased by ~50 percent, and was reported at 200 deaths per 100,000 live births in the year 2010 as compared to 390 a decade ago. A few states such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Kerala have already achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of a maternal mortality ratio less than 109 maternal death per 100,000 live births, with multiple other states close to achieving this target.
  • Infant mortality rate has decreased by greater than 25 percent over the period 2000–2009, and was reported at 50 deaths per 1,000 live births. Correspondingly, the under-5 child mortality rate (U5MR) has decreased by similar percentage levels, and was reported at 64 deaths per 1,000 live births. While U5MR for urban India has achieved the MDG target of 42 the same for rural of 71 is significantly lagging the target level.
  • Immunization coverage has increased significantly, for example diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis immunization among 1 year olds has increased from 60% to 70%, and the Hepatitis B coverage has increased from 68% in 2005 to 91% in 2010.
  • National programs have successfully improved detection and cure rates for tuberculosis and leprosy.

No direct relationship established between healthcare spend and outcomes:

Though India’s per-capita healthcare spend has been lowest among the usually compared BRIC countries, the following quick example would clearly establish that the healthcare outcomes do not have a linear relationship with the per-capita healthcare spend either:

Per capita Healthcare expenditure in 2011: Country Comparison

Country US $ World Rank Physician/1000 people Hospital/1000 people Life expectancy at birth (years)
Brazil 1120.56   41 1.76 2.3 73.4
Russia 806.7   55 4.31 9.6 69.0
India 59.1 152 0.65 0.9 67.08
China 278.02   99 1.82 3.8 73.5 

(Source: WHO data)

Thus, taking a cue from these numbers, India should decide at what percapita spend the country would possibly be able to ensure quality ‘access’ to healthcare for 100 percent of its population. Mere, comparison of percapita spend of each country, I reckon, may thus not mean much.


The moot point, I reckon, is that, to measure progress in any sphere of activity, one will need to have a robust well-derived base point. Thereafter, progress needs to be monitored and quantified periodically from one point to the next.

So far as the access to healthcare in general and medicines in particular are concerned, it becomes difficult to fathom why is this basic approach still not being considered to measure progress in ‘Access’ and its rate in India.

As a result, discussions among the stakeholders do not take place around those updated numbers, either. Instead, what we hear is a high decibel cacophony of perceptions, at times groping around various dimensions of ‘Access’ and that too without quantification of each, as stated above.  This makes the task all the more complicated in pursuit of providing ‘Healthcare to All’ in India.

That said, the question to ponder now:

Does any one know what is the current ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ number in India and at what rate the progress is being made in that direction to achieve ‘Health for All’ objective of the country?

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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