Dissapointing: No proposal of ‘Healthcare Reform’ in the Union Budget of India for 2011-12: China rolled it out in 2009.

January 15, 2011 issue of ‘The Lancet’ in an article titled, “Learning from others” states the following:

“Having universal coverage through a public commitment does have costs, including public costs. The proportion of national expenditure on health that is met by the government is 26% in India and 45% in China. Or, to look at a related contrast, while government expenditure on health care in India is only around 1·1% of its GDP, it is around 1·9% in China. One need not be a genius to see that if the government of a country is ready to spend more on health, it could expect better results in terms of the health of the people.”

While comparing India with China, I reckon, one should take into account of larger disease burden in India as compared to China and the cost that India pays due to slow progress of reform processes in a democratic framework with open and free society and the vibrant outspoken media in the country. Further, the healthcare reform processes in China started over a decade earlier than India, resulting in a significant difference in the healthcare infrastructure, healthcare delivery and the healthcare financing systems of both the countries, over a period of time.

Access to safe drinking water and sanitation:

Access to safe drinking water in India may be comparable to other emerging economies, but sanitation condition in India needs radical improvement. According to World Health Organization (WHO, 2009) the Access to potable water and improved sanitation in those countries are as follows:

Country Drinking Water  (% population) Sanitation                     (% population)
India 89 28
Brazil 91 77
China 88 65
Mexico 95 81
South Africa 93 59

Key issues in the Public Hospitals:

The ethical issues, which the patients face, especially, in the hospitals of India, I reckon, have not been reported for China by the Transparency International.

Transparency International India (2005) had reported the following seven key issues and irregularities experienced by the patients at the Government Hospitals in India:

  1. Medicines unavailable: 52%
  2. Doctors suggest a visit to their private clinic: 37%
  3. Doctors refer to private diagnostic centers: 31%
  4. Over-prescription of medicines: 24%
  5. Bribes demanded by staff: 20%
  6. Diagnostics tests done even when unnecessary: 18%
  7. Doctors are absent: 13%

All these continue to happen in India, with no respite to patients, despite ‘Hippocratic Oath’ being taken by the medical profession and the new MCI guidelines for the doctors being in place within the country. Moreover, a miniscule spend of 1% of the GDP by the Government of India towards public healthcare of the nation, is indeed a shame.

Healthcare Reform in China:

Early April, 2009, China, a country with 1.3 billion people, unfolded a plan for a new healthcare reform process for the next decade to provide safe, effective, convenient and affordable healthcare services to all its citizens. A budgetary allocation of U.S $124 billion has been made for the next three years towards this purpose.
China’s last healthcare reform was in 1997:
China in 1997 took its first reform measures to correct the earlier practice, when the medical services used to be considered just like any other commercial product. Very steep healthcare expenses made the medical services unaffordable and difficult to access to a vast majority of the Chinese population.
Out of pocket expenditure towards healthcare services also increased in China:
The data from the Ministry of Health of China indicates that out of pocket spending on healthcare services more than doubled from 21.2 percent in 1980 to 45.2 percent in 2007. At the same time the government funding towards healthcare services came down from 36.2 percent in 1980 to 20.3 percent in the same period.
Series of healthcare reforms were effectively implemented since then like, new cooperative medical scheme for the farmers and medical insurance for urban employees, to address the situation  prevailing at that time.
The core principle of the new phase of healthcare reform in China:
The core principle of the new phase of the healthcare reform process in China is to provide basic health care as a “public service” to all its citizens, where more government funding and supervision will assume a critical role.
The new healthcare reform process in China will, therefore, ensure basic systems of public health, medical services, medical insurance and medicine supply to the entire population of China. Priority will be given to the development of grass-root level hospitals in smaller cities and rural China and the general population will be encouraged to use these facilities for better access to affordable healthcare services. However, public, non-profit hospitals will continue to be one of the important providers of medical services in the country.
Medical Insurance and access to affordable medicines in China:
Chinese government plans to set up diversified medical insurance systems. The coverage of the basic medical insurance is expected to exceed 90 percent of the population by 2011. At the same time the new healthcare reform measures will ensure better health care delivery systems of affordable essential medicines at all public hospitals.
Careful monitoring of the healthcare system by the Chinese Government:
Chinese government will monitor the effective implementation and supervision of the healthcare operations of not only the medical institutions, but also the planning of health services development, and the basic medical insurance system, with greater care.
It has been reported that though the public hospitals will receive more government funding and be allowed to charge higher fees for quality treatment, however, they will not be allowed to make profits through expensive medicines and treatment, which is a common practice in China at present.
Drug price regulation and supervision in China:
The new healthcare reform measures will include regulation of prices of medicines and medical services, together with strengthening of supervision of health insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies and retailers.
As the saying goes, ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’, the success of the new healthcare reform measures in China will depend on how effectively these are implemented across the country.

Besides Democracy, China has something to learn from India too:

The article, as mentioned above, from ‘The Lancet’ concludes by saying that unlike China, the real progress in India has come out of public discussion and demonstration within the democratic set-up in India. One such program is distribution of cooked mid-day meals to school children and selected interventions in child development in pre-school institutions. Such programs are currently not available in China for development of proper physical and mental health of, especially, the children of the marginalized section of the society

There exists a sharp difference between India and China in the critical healthcare delivery system. The Chinese Government at least guarantees a basic level of public funded and managed healthcare services to all its citizens. Unfortunately, the situation is not quite the same in India, because of various reasons.
High economic growth in both the countries has also led to inequitable distribution of wealth, making many poor even poorer and the rich richer, further complicating the basic healthcare issues involving a vast majority of poor population of India.
To effectively address the critical issues related to health of its population, the Chinese Government has already announced a blueprint outlining its new healthcare reform measures for the next ten years. How will the Government of India respond to this situation for the new decade that has just begun?

It was very dissapointing to learn from the Union Budget speech of the Finance Minister of India for 2011-12 that the perspective of our Government on the importance of healthcare for the fellow citizens of India, still remains indifferent.

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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