“Health inequities which abound in India must be corrected through investments in a robust primary health care system,” said Professor K Srinath Reddy, chairman, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), not too long ago.
The equity gap between health care needs and delivery for the general population of India continues to widen.
As the next Union Budget of India is coming nearer, the question in this regard that comes at the top of mind is:
Would adequate resources be allocated by the Union Finance Minister to bridge this gap effectively now or the elusive bridge continue to remain too Far?
The growing challenges:
Up until now, despite making some progress in improving access to health care, India continues to face the growing challenges of:
- Gross inequalities in this area by socioeconomic status, geography and gender.
- High out-of-pocket health expenditure pushes its ever increasing financial burden overwhelming on the private households, that accounts for over three-quarters of health spending in India.
- Exorbitant out-of-pocket health spending is also responsible for mercilessly driving into poverty more than half of Indian households, or around 39 million Indians, each year.
The paper titled, “Health care and equity in India”, published by ‘The Lancet’ on February 05, 2011, well deliberated on this issue.
The paper identifies 3 key challenges to equity in health care:
- In service delivery
- In financing
- In financial risk protection
In the article titled, “My Expectations From The Union Budget (2016-17)”, written in this Blog on December 07, 2015, I also suggested that adequate resource deployment be made by the Government now in power, in all these three areas, while presenting the forthcoming Union Budget on February 28, 2016.
The root cause of inequity in healthcare:
I reckon, there are, at least, the following three key reasons that can be attributed to this failure, on the part of various Governments in power, till today:
- Inability, primarily on the part of the central government, to effectively integrate healthcare with socioeconomic, social hygiene, education, nutrition and sanitation related issues of the nation.
- Health being a state subject, not much of coordinated and robust planning has so far been taken place in this area, between the Central and the State Governments, to effectively address the pressing health care related growing inequity across the country, in general.
- Budgetary allocation and other fiscal measures towards health care, both by the central and most of the state governments, are grossly inadequate.
As I said before, in another article published by this blog titled, “With Highest Billionaire Wealth Concentration, India Tops Malnutrition Chart in South Asia” on January 26, 2015, it is a well accepted fact that reduction of social inequalities ultimately helps to effectively resolve many important health care issues.
Otherwise, only a much smaller population of the country having adequate access to knowledge, social and monetary power, will continue to have the necessary resources to address their health care needs, appropriately.
UNICEF highlights stark inequalities in India:
According to UNICEF, every year, 1 million children below the age of five years die, due to malnutrition related causes in India. This number is worrisome as it is far higher than the emergency threshold, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) classification of the severity of malnutrition.
Highlighting stark inequality in India, the report says, “The net worth of a household that is among the top 10 per cent can support its consumption for more than 23 years, while the net worth of a household in the bottom 10 percent can support its consumption for less than three months.”
Are so called “patient centric approaches” real?
Patients are also bearing a different kind of brunt altogether, from several other corners, on their health related issues.
Today, most of the important stakeholders of the health care industry, in general, seem to be using various facades of ‘patient centric approaches’, just for petty commercial gains, or for gaining some key strategic commercial advantages.
Such entities could well be pharmaceutical industry, doctors, hospitals, diagnostic centers, politicians or any other stakeholders.
It is unfortunate that most of them, at various different times, either pontificate about following ‘patient centric approaches’ or use the patients cleverly just to achieve their respective commercial or political goals, solely driven by vested interests. While on the ground, growing inequity in health care keeps marching north.
A recent paper of NITI Ayog:
In a discussion paper of July 18, 2015 titled, “Health System in India: Bridging the Gap Between Current Performance and Potential”, The National Institution for Transforming India Aayog (NITI Aayog), the policy think tank of the new Indian Government, has also accepted the following 3 critical realities, currently prevailing in the health care environment of India:
- India’s progress in health outcomes has been slower in comparison to other countries with comparable incomes and at similar stages of development.
- Impressive gains in per capita income should match with an increase in life expectancy or health status.
- Out of pocket expenditure in India is high (70 percent of total health expenditure). This is catastrophic for the poor and pushes an estimated 37 million into poverty every year.
The NITI Ayog paper also emphasized, although health is a subject allotted to the State List, under the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution, the Central Government is jointly responsible for items in the Concurrent List.
Currently, India is the global numero uno in the GDP growth rate. Thus, there cannot probably be any better time for the nation to leapfrog in the health care space, with a quantum increase in public financial commitments, to radically revamp the fragile public health system in the country.
I repeat, incremental progress in the public health care system is just not enough for the country, extensive application of cutting edge Information Technology (IT) effectively, dovetailing with the creation of modern brick and mortar public health care infrastructure, top class human resource namely, doctors, nurses and related skill development process, on an ongoing basis.
The Government should also ensure that the domestic health care industry comes forward to shoulder higher responsibility to enable the country in offering greater equity in health care, in tandem with the Union Ministry of Health and the State Governments.
This path, in my view, would help building a more equitable health system with a strong foundation of public health for more than 1.2 billion Indians. In that process the fast widening gap in equity, between health care needs and availability, could be bridged much sooner, and in a sustainable way.
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.