Exploring a new ‘Business Model’ to improve access to healthcare in rural India with the industry participation

Rural India – the home of around 72% of 1.12 billion population of India is undergoing a metamorphosis, as it were. Disposable income of this population is slowly but steadily rising, as evidenced by rapid market penetration of the ‘Fast Moving Consume Goods (FMCG)’ industry in general and companies like Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and Dabur in particular.

Size of the Healthcare Sector in India:

It has been reported that the current size of the healthcare industry in India ia around US $ 23 billion or around 5.2% of the GDP. Though the sector is showing an overall healthy growth of around 13%, public expenditure towards healthcare is just around 0.9% of the GDP of the country. As per WHO (2005) per capita government expenditure on health in India was just around US $7, against US $31 of China, US $24 of Sri Lanka, US $11 of Kenya and US $12 of Indonesia.

Currently the number of Government Hospitals/Healthcare centers in India are grossly inadequate and are as follows:

  • Medical Colleges: 242
  • Community Health centers: 3346
  • District Hospitals: 4400
  • Other Public Hospitals: 1200
  • Primary Health Centers: 23236
  • Subcenters: 146026
  • Number of Hospitals in rural areas: 53400
  • Population to rely on Public Hospitals: 43%

Even with the above network of public healthcare centers in India, overall effectiveness of public healthcare delivery system is very poor in the country. Increasing penetration of Information Technology could perhaps partially address this problem.

Growth drivers of rural India?

I reckon, mainly the following reasons attribute to the growth of the rural economy:

- Gradual increase in procurement prices of food grains by the government and waiver of agricultural loans to the tune of US$13.9 billion

- Growing non-farm income: Currently more than 50% of rural income is through non-farm sources, fuelled by various non-farm activities like food-processing, manufacturing, trading, in addition to the income flow from the rural migrants.

– Increased spending by the Government, which is expected to be around US$ 20 billion by March 2010, in the rural areas through various projects and schemes, like National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Bharat Nirman Program etc. coupled with easier access to requisite loans and credits, have improved the spending power of rural households significantly.

Though the government is making heavy budgetary allocations in rural India to improve the basic infrastructural facilities, healthcare and education, the implementation of most of these schemes still remains far from satisfactory, as of now.

A gaping hole in the rural healthcare space:
In the healthcare space of rural India there is still a gaping hole in various efforts of both the government and the private players to create a robust primary healthcare infrastructure for the common man. Thus poor access to healthcare services, coupled with lack of ability to pay for such services and medicines round the year, are the key challenges that the country will need to overcome. Lack of disease awareness and poor affordability towards healthcare services, still account for 60% of rural ailments not getting treated at all.

Key shortcomings of the current rural healthcare infrastructure:

Despite the numbers quoted above, following shortcomings continue to exist in the healthcare infrastructure of the country:
- Number of Primary Health Centers (PHC) are far less than the budgetary estimate/allocation
- Inadequate treatment facilities even where the PHCs exist
- Shortage of doctors, nurses and paramedics
- Very high rate of absenteeism

Pharmaceutical companies in India should now explore fortune at the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ to reap a rich harvest, creating a win-win situation:

If the pharmaceutical companies operating within the country, partner with the government and other key stakeholders, as a part of their corporate business strategy, to make a fortune from the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, this critical issue can be effectively resolved, sooner. Novartis India has already ventured into this area and has tasted reasonable success with their ‘Arogya Parivar’ program.

However, in my view additional sets of the following value delivery objectives need to be considered to make this the rural healthcare mission with PPP initiatives successful:

- Affordable medicines of high quality standard
- Increase in health awareness by collaborating with the NGOs and rural institutions for various common diseases.
- Continuing Medical Education (CME) for the rural doctors and para-medics
- Arranging microfinance for the healthcare professionals to create small micro- level healthcare infrastructure and also for the patients to undergo treatment
- Help reducing the transaction cost of medicines and healthcare services through fiscal measures by collaborating with the government
- The product portfolio to be tailor made to address the common healthcare needs of rural India

Private healthcare facilities are preferred to public healthcare facilities even in the rural India:

Irrespective of rich or poor, around 80% of the population in India prefer private domiciliary treatment facilities and 50% of the same prefer private hospital treatment services. However, let me hasten to add that even within the private healthcare space in rural India, a lot needs to be done. Many so called ‘doctors’, who are practicing in rural India, have no formal medical qualifications. Moreover, even such doctors are not available in villages with a population of around 300 to 500 households.

The key success factors of the rural marketing ‘Business Model’:

Urban pharmaceutical marketing model, I reckon, should not be replicated for ‘rural pharmaceutical marketing’, as the success factors required for each of them, is quite different. In rural marketing the stakeholders’ needs and wants are quite different. If these are not properly identified and thereafter adequately addressed, mostly through collaborative initiatives, the rural pharmaceutical marketing ‘Business Model’ may not fly at all.

Partnership with Microfinance Institutions will be a key requirement:

Interested pharmaceutical companies will need to collaborate with the rural microfinance institutions for such business initiatives. This will ensure that appropriate loans can be extended to doctors and retailers, wherever needed, to help them create requisite local healthcare infrastructure to make such projects viable and successful. At the same time, such institutions will also require to help the needy rural population with requisite loans to help meeting their cost of medical treatment.


From a ‘back of the envelope calculation’ it appears that such projects can definitely be made profitable with a modest gross margin of around 40% – 50% and operating profit of around 6% to 8% . The high volume of turnover from over 650 million population of India, will make these ‘rural pharmaceutical marketing projects’ viable. Simultaneously, such corporate business initiatives will help alleviating pain and suffering from diseases of a vast majority of the rural population of India.

By Tapan 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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