Does Healthcare Feature In Raisina Hill’s To-Do List?

At the Capitol Hill, while addressing the joint session of the United States Congress, on June 08, 2016, our Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi well articulated the following, in his inimitable style:

“My to-do list is long and ambitious. It includes a vibrant rural economy with robust farm sector; a roof over each head and electricity to all households; to skill millions of our youth; build 100 smart cities; have a broadband for a billion, and connect our villages to the digital world; and create a 21st century rail, road and port infrastructure.”

This ambitious list is indeed praiseworthy. However, as the Prime Minister did not mention anything about health care infrastructure, while referring to rapid infrastructure development in India, it is not abundantly clear, just yet, whether this critical area finds a place in his ‘to-do’ list, as well, for ‘We The People of India’.

This apprehension is primarily because, no large scale, visible and concrete reform measures are taking place in this area, even during the last two years. It of course includes, any significant escalation in the public expenditure for health.

Ongoing economic cost of significant loss in productive years:

“The disease burden of non-communicable diseases has increased to 60 per cent. India is estimated to lose US$ 4.8 Trillion between 2012 and 2030 due to non-communicable disorders. It is therefore critical for India to transform its healthcare sector,” – says a 2015 KPMG report titled, ‘Healthcare: The neglected GDP driver.’ 

This significant and ongoing loss in productive years continues even today in India, handicapped by suboptimal health care infrastructure, and its delivery mechanisms. Such a situation can’t possibly be taken for granted for too long. Today’s aspiring general public wants the new political leadership at the helm of affairs in the country to address it, sooner. A larger dosage of hope, and assurances may not cut much ice, any longer.

Transparent, comprehensive, and game changing health reforms, supported by the requisite financial and other resources, should now be translated into reality. A sharp increase in public investments, in the budgetary provision, for healthy lives of a vast majority of Indian population, would send an appropriate signal to all.

As the above KPMG report also suggests: “It is high time that we realize the significance of healthcare as an economic development opportunity for national as well as state level.”

Pump-priming public health investments:

With a meager public expenditure of just around 1.2 percent of the GDP on health even during the last two years, instead of rubbing shoulders with the global big brothers in the health care area too, India would continue to rank at the very bottom.

Consequently, the gaping hole within the healthcare space of the country would stand out, even more visibly, as a sore thumb, escaping the notice, and the agony of possibly none.

With around 68 percent of the country’s population living in the rural areas, having frugal or even no immediate emergency healthcare facilities, India seems to be heading towards a major socioeconomic imbalance, with its possible consequences, despite the country’s natural demographic dividend.

According to published reports, there is still a shortage of 32 and 23 percent of the Community Health Centers (CHC) and the Primary Health Centers (PHC), respectively, in India. To meet the standard of the World Health Organization (WHO), India would need minimum another 500,000 hospital beds, requiring an investment of US$ 50 Billion.

Moreover, to date, mostly the private healthcare institutions, and medical professionals are engaged in the delivery of the secondary and tertiary care, concentrated mostly in metro cities and larger towns. This makes rural healthcare further challenging. Pump-priming public investments, together with transparent incentive provisions for both global and local healthcare investors, would help augmenting the process.

Help propel GDP growth:

As the above KPMG report says, the healthcare sector has the ability to propel GDP growth via multiple spokes, directly and indirectly. It offers a chance to create millions of job opportunities that can not only support the Indian GDP growth, but also support other sectors of the economy by improving both demand and supply of a productive healthy workforce.

Three key areas of healthcare:

Healthcare, irrespective of whether it is primary, secondary or tertiary, has three major components, as follows: 

  • Prevention
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment 

Leveraging digital technology:

As it appears, leveraging digital technology effectively, would help to bridge the health care gap and inequality considerably, especially in the first two of the above three areas.

A June 06, 2016 paper titled, ‘Promoting Rural Health Care: Role of telemedicine,’ published by the multi-industry trade organization -The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) said: “With limited resources and a large rural population telemedicine has the potential to revolutionize the delivery of healthcare in India.”

As the report highlighted, it would help faster diagnosis of ailments, partly address the issues of inadequacy of health care providers in rural areas, and also the huge amount of time that is now being spent in physically reaching the urban health facilities. Maintenance of the status quo, would continue making the rural populace more vulnerable in the health care space, than their urban counterparts.

The study forecasted that India’s telemedicine market, which has been growing at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 20 per cent, holds the potential to cross US$32 million mark in turnover by 2020, from the current level of over US$15 million.

According to another report, currently, with around 70 percent overall use of smartphones, it is quite possible to give a major technology enabled thrust for disease prevention, together with emergency care, to a large section of the society.  

However, to demonstrate the real technology leveraged progress in this area, the Government would require to actively help fixing the requisite hardware, software, bandwidth and connectivity related critical issues, effectively. These will also facilitate keeping mobile, and other electronic health records.

Disease treatment with medicines:

To make quality drugs available at affordable prices, the Indian Government announced a new scheme (Yojana) named as ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Yojana’, effective July 2015, with private participation. This is a renamed scheme of the earlier version, which was launched in 2008. Under the new ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Yojana’, about 500 generic medicines will be made available at affordable prices. For that purpose, the government is expected to open 3000 ‘Jan Aushadhi’ stores across the country in the next one year i.e. 2016-17.

The question now is what purpose would this much hyped scheme serve?

What purpose would ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Yojanaserve?

Since the generic drugs available from ‘Jan Aushadhi’ retail outlets are predominantly prescription medicines, patients would necessarily require a doctor’s physical prescription to buy those products.

In India, as the doctors prescribe mostly branded generics, including those from a large number of the Government hospitals, the only way to make ‘Jan Aushadhi’ drugs available to patients, is to legally allow the retailers substituting the higher priced branded generic molecules with their lower priced equivalents, sans any brand name.

Moving towards this direction, the Ministry of Health had reportedly submitted a proposal to the Drug Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) to the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), for consideration. Wherein, the Ministry reportedly suggested an amendment of Rule 65 of the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945 to enable the retail chemists substituting a branded drug formulation with its cheaper equivalent, containing the same generic ingredient, in the same strength and the dosage form, with or without a brand name.

However, in the 71st meeting of the DTAB held on May 13, 2016, its members reportedly turned down that proposal of the ministry. DTAB apparently felt that given the structure of the Indian retail pharmaceutical market, the practical impact of this recommendation may be limited.

For this reason, the ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Yojana’, appears to be not so well thought out, and a one-off ‘making feel good’ type of a scheme. It is still unclear how would the needy patients derive any benefit from this announcement.

Conclusion:

On June 20, 2016, while maintaining the old policy of 100 per cent FDI in the pharmaceutical sector, Prime Minister Modi announced his Government’s decision to allow foreign investors to pick up to 74 per cent equity in domestic pharma companies through the automatic route.

This announcement, although is intended to brighten the prospects for higher foreign portfolio and overseas company investment in the Indian drug firms, is unlikely to have any significant impact, if at all, on the prevailing abysmal health care environment of the country.

Hopefully, with the development of 100 ‘smart cities’ in India, with 24×7 broadband, Wi-Fi connectivity, telemedicine would be a reality in improving access to affordable healthcare, at least, for the population residing in and around those areas.

Still the fundamental question remains: What happens to the remaining vast majority of the rural population of India? What about their health care? Poorly thought out, and apparently superficial ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Yojana’ won’t be able to help this population, either. 

With the National Health Policy 2015 draft still to see the light of the day in its final form, the path ahead for healthcare in India is still rather hazy, if not worrying. 

As stated before, in the Prime Minister’s recent speech delivered at the ‘Capitol Hill’ of the United States earlier this month, development of a robust healthcare infrastructure in the country did not find any mention in his ‘to-do’ list.

Leaving aside the ‘Capitol Hill’ for now, considering the grave impact of health care on the economic progress of India, shouldn’t the ‘Raisina Hill’ start pushing the envelope, placing it in one of the top positions of the national ‘to-do’ list, only to protect the health interest of ‘We The People of India’?

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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