Healthcare in India And Hierarchy of Needs

“Russia and India climb World Bank’s Doing Business rankings”, was a headline in the Financial Times on October 31, 2017. India jumped 30 places – from 130 out of 190. Almost instantly, the domestic media flashed it all across the country, as the prime news item of the day. It brought great satisfaction to many, and very rightly so.

The news is also worth cheering as it ignites the hope of a large section of the society that sometime in the future more business will come into the country, more jobs will be created, and in that process India will emerge as a more healthy and wealthy nation, just as many other countries around the world.

This loud cheer, in tandem, also transcends into a hope for a well-oiled public healthcare system functioning efficiently in India, alongside greater wealth creation. This is because, while expecting a healthier nation, one can’t possibly keep the public healthcare system of the country out of it, altogether. Thus, I reckon, it won’t be quite out of place to have a quick look at India’s current ranking on other healthcare related indices too, such as ‘Healthcare Index’ and ‘Human Development Index’ and ‘Hunger Index’:

Healthcare index:

With that perspective, when go through the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016, published in The Lancet on September 16, 2017, it will be difficult to wish away the fact that India ranks 154 among 195 countries in ‘Healthcare Index’. Surprisingly, India ranks much behind Sri Lanka (72.8), Bangladesh (51.7), Bhutan (52.7) and Nepal (50.8) though, of course, above Pakistan (43.1) and Afghanistan (32.5). This is what it is, regardless of the fact that India’s Healthcare Access and Quality (HAQ) index has increased by 14.1 – from 30.7 in 1990 to 44.8 in 2015.

Human Development Index:

The ranking of India in the Human Development Index (HDI) is also not encouraging, either. Many would know, HDI is a composite index of life expectancy, education, and per capita income, which are used to rank countries in human development. As life expectancy also depends on the quality of healthcare, HDI has a significant bearing on this count, as well.

The ‘2016 Human Development Index Report (HDR)’ released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in March 2017 shows that India has slipped by one rank from 130 to 131, among 188 countries. According to UNDP, ‘in the past decades, there has been significant gains in human development levels almost in every country, but millions of people have not benefited from this progress. This report highlights who have been left behind and why?’

I shall dwell on the ‘Global Hunger Index Report’ below at an appropriate context.

Why is this comparison between different indices…and now?

The above question is indeed a very valid one. Nonetheless, it is important to do so. I am quoting these rankings to flag the sharp contrast in our mindset to rejoice the good rankings, and lampooning the adverse ones, citing one reason or the other.

It is obvious from the general euphoria witnessed by many on such good news –  highlighted so well by the print, television and social media, with high decibel discussions by experts and politicians. There is nothing wrong in doing that, in any way. However, similar media discussions were not evident for taking effective corrective measures, soon, when ‘global burden of disease rankings’ or ‘Human Development Index Report (HDR)’ or the ‘Global Hunger Index’ rankings were published in September, March and October 2017, respectively.

Does it therefore mean that effectively addressing issues related to crumbling public healthcare infrastructure in the country attracts much lesser importance than ensuring ease of doing business in the country? Do both the politicians and the voters also consider so? Perhaps the answer is yes, as many would envisage in the largest democracy of the world.

What’s happening elsewhere?

In many developed and also the developing countries of the world, general public or voters’ expectations for having an affordable and robust public healthcare delivery system from the respective Governments seem to be high. Consequently, it also directs the focus of the politicians or lawmakers on the same. This scenario includes even the oldest democracy of the world – America. Such expectations on comprehensive healthcare covers the need for affordable drug prices too.

That voters are greatly concerned about healthcare in those countries is supported by many contemporary surveys. Just before the last year’s American Presidential election, Kaiser Health Tracking Poll: September 2016, substantiated this point. It said, besides considering personal characteristics of the candidates, the voters clearly articulated their priority on patient-friendly healthcare laws and affordable drug prices, as follows:

  • Over 66 percent of voters expressed that healthcare law is very important to their vote
  • 77 percent said prescription drug costs are unreasonable, expressing widespread support for a variety of actions in order to keep healthcare costs down

Accordingly, The New York Times on September 17, 2017 reported: “The public is angry about the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. Surveys have shown that high drug prices rank near the top of consumers’ health care concerns, and politicians in both parties - including President Trump — have vowed to do something about it.”

I haven’t come across such widespread demand from the voters getting captured in any survey, before either any State Assembly or the Parliament elections in India. Hence, public healthcare continues to languish in the country, as various Governments come and go.

What happens post-election in the oldest democracy?

We have enough examples that post-election, the oldest democracy of the world tries to satisfy the well-articulated healthcare needs of the voters, on priority. To illustrate the point, let me help recapitulate what happened in this regard, immediately after the last two Presidential elections in America.

After swearing in on January 20, 2009, then American President Barack Obama, as expected by the voters and promised by him accordingly, enacted the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as ‘Obamacare’, almost within a year’s time – on March 23, 2010. Similarly, within a few months of swearing in as the American President, Donald Trump administration is mulling to address the voters demand and his electoral promise to make the prescription drugs more affordable.

Public demand and outcry for affordable healthcare, including affordable drugs have led to several serious consequential developments in the United States. Let me illustrate this point with another example of recent lawsuits filed against alleged price fixing of generic drugs – many of these are new, but a few started in the last few years.

Vigil on drug prices continues:

As high drug prices are a burning issue even in America, a lot many steps are being taken there on that issue – just as many other developed and developing countries are taking.

It is rather well known that even after enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, the Department of Justice of the country expanded probing into the allegation of price fixing by many generic drug manufacturers operating in America. One such illustration is October 31, 2017 public notice of the State Attorney General (AG) of Connecticut. It states that the AG is leading a coalition of 46-states in new, expanded complaint in Federal Generic Drug Antitrust Lawsuit. It further mentioned: States allege broad, industry-wide understanding among numerous drug manufacturers to restrain competition and raise prices on 15 generic drugs, where some senior executives have been sued.

Interestingly, in this notice the AG said, “The generic drug market was conceived as a way to help bring down the cost of prescription medications. For years, those savings have not been realized, and instead the prices of many generic drugs have skyrocketed.” He alleged that the defendant companies’ collusion was so pervasive that it essentially eliminated competition from the market for the identified 15 drugs in its entirety. ‘Ongoing investigation continues to uncover additional evidence, and we anticipate bringing more claims involving additional companies and drugs at the appropriate time,” the Attorney General further added.

By the way, the expanded complaint of the states reportedly also includes several large Indian companies, such Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, Emcure, Glenmark, Sun Pharma, and Zydus Pharma. Curiously, the expanded complaint also names two individual defendants, one among them is the promoter, the chief executive officer and managing director of a large Indian pharma manufacturer.

Examples such as this vindicate, even if a robust public healthcare system is put in place, the regulators would still keep a careful vigil on drug prices.

Getting back to the key link between some indices:

Let me now get back to where I started from – the link between ‘ease of doing business’ and ‘becoming a healthy and wealthy’ nation, over a period of time. This would subsequently bring us to the link between healthy nation and the existence of a robust and functioning affordable public healthcare system in the country.

From that angle, I raised a key question. Why the general public, and specifically the voters in India aren’t making effective delivery of an affordable public healthcare as one of the top priority areas while voting for or against a political dispensation? The question assumes greater relevance when one sees it happening in many other countries, as discussed above. Is it, therefore, worth pondering whether this issue can be explained, at least to a great extent, by applying the well-known ‘Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs.’

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and hunger index:

As the literature says, ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ is a theory of motivation in psychology developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. He believed people move through different stages of five needs that motivate our behavior. He called these needs physiological, safety, love and belonging (social), esteem, and self-actualization.

As we see, the first two basic needs are physiological and then safety. Maslow explains the ‘physiological needs’ as food, water, sleep, and basic biological functions. When these physiological needs are adequately met, our safety needs would usually dominate individual behavior.

Similarly, Maslow’s ‘safety needs’ in the modern era are generally expressed as the needs of job security, financial security, and health and well-being, among a few others. Thus, the need for healthcare falls under ‘safety needs’, following the most basic ‘physiological needs’.

As Food is one the first basic needs, India’s current ranking in the ‘Global Hunger Index (GHI)’, would suggest this primary need of having at least two square meals of nutritious food a day, has not been adequately met by a large population of Indians, not just yet.

India’s ranking in the Global Hunger Index (GHI):

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) has been defined as a multidimensional statistical tool used to describe the state of countries’ hunger situation. The GHI measures progress and failures in the global fight against hunger. It is now, reportedly, in its 12th year, ranking countries based on four key indicators – undernourishment, child mortality, child wasting and child stunting.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report, titled ‘2017 global hunger index: The inequalities of hunger ’, indicates that India ranks below many of its neighboring countries, such as China (29th in rank), Nepal (72), Myanmar (77), Sri Lank (84) and Bangladesh (88), but ahead of Pakistan (106) and Afghanistan (107). Just for the sake of interest, North Korea ranks 93rd while Iraq is in 78th position.

The primary basic need of food and nutrition does not seem to have been fully met for a large Indian voter population, as yet. Many of them are still struggling and searching for appropriate means of earning a dignified livelihood. It includes support in agricultural production and the likes. Thus, many voters don’t feel yet, the second level of need that prompts a vocal demand for an affordable and robust public healthcare system in the country. The same situation continues, despite ‘out of pocket’ expenditure on healthcare being one of the highest in India, alongside the cost of drugs too.

Conclusion:

This brings us to the key question – When would the demand for having an affordable and robust public healthcare system in the country, assume priority for the general public in India, and the voters, in particular?

Sans Government’s sharp focus on public healthcare, including the cost of drugs, devices, and education, it will be challenging for a democracy of India’s size to make a decisive move, for a long term – from average to good – and then from good to great, even in the economic parameters.

Applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs onto various health related global indices, it appears that the primary basic need of food and nutrition has not been fully met for a large Indian voter population, as yet. This possibly makes a large section of Indian voters to move into the second level of need, raising a widespread vocal demand for an affordable and robust public healthcare system in the country.

Rejoicing country’s advancement in the World Bank’s ranking on the ease of doing business by 30 points in a year has its own merits. However, in the same yardstick, doesn’t health care losing the priority focus of the nation also highlight the demerits of misplaced priority in a country’s governance process, and just because the voters are not quite demanding on this issue?

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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