Access to affordable healthcare to 65% of Indian population still remains a key issue even after six decades of independence of the country.

Despite so much of stringent government control, debate and activism on the affordability of modern medicines in India, on the one hand, and the success of the government to make medicines available in the country at a price, which is cheaper than even Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, on the other, the fact still remains, about 65% of Indian population does not have access to affordable modern medicines, as compared to just 15% in China and 22% in Africa.The moot question therefore arises, despite all these stringent price regulation measures by the government and prolonged public debates over nearly four decades to ensure better ‘affordability of medicines’, why then ‘access to modern medicine’ remained so abysmal to a vast majority of the population of India, even after sixty years of independence of the country?This vindicates the widely held belief that in India no single minister or ministry can be held accountable by the civil society for such a dismal performance in the access to healthcare in the country. Is it then a ‘system flaw’? May well be so.

Poor healthcare infrastructure:

As per the Government’s own estimate, India falls far short of its minimum requirements towards basic public healthcare infrastructure. The records indicate, as follows:

1. A shortage of 4803 Primary Health Centres (PHC)

2. A shortage of 2653 Community Health Centres (CHC)

3. No large Public Hospitals in rural areas where over 70% of the populations live

4. Density of doctors in India is just 0.6 per 1000 population against 1.4 and 0.8 per 1000 population in China and Pakistan respectively, as reported by WHO.

The Government spending in India towards healthcare is just 1.1% of GDP, against 2% of China and 1.6% of Sri Lanka, as reported by the WHO.

Some good sporadic public healthcare initiatives to improve access:

The government allocation around US$2.3 billion for the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), is a good initiative to bring about uniformity in quality of preventive and curative healthcare in rural areas across the country.
While hoping for the success of NRHM, inadequacy of the current rural healthcare infrastructure in the country with about 80 percent of doctors, 75 percent dispensaries and 60 percent of hospitals located only in the urban India may encourage the skeptics.

PPP to improve access to medicines:

At this stage of progress of India, ‘Public Private Partnership (PPP)’ initiatives in the following four critical areas could prove to be very apt to effectively resolve this issue

1. PPP to improve affordability:

It appears that in earlier days, the policy makers envisaged that stringent drug price control mechanism alone will work as a ‘magic wand’ to improve affordability of medicines and consequently their access to a vast majority of Indian population.

When through stricter price control measures the access to medicines did not improve in any significant measure, the industry associations reportedly had jointly suggested to the government for a policy shift towards public-private-partnership (PPP) model way back in December 2006. The comprehensive submission made to the government also included a proposal of extending ‘concessional price for government procurement’ under certain criteria.

In this submission to the government, the industry did not suggest total price de-regulation for the pharmaceutical industry of India. Instead, it had requested for extension of the price monitoring system of the ‘National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA)’, which is currently working very effectively for over 80 percent of the total pharmaceutical industry in India. Balance, less than 20 percent of the industry, is currently under cost-based price control.

However, the argument of the NPPA against this suggestion of the pharmaceutical industry is that the market entry price of any formulation under the ‘price monitoring’ mechanism is not decided by the government. Hence without putting in place any proper price control/negotiation system to arrive at the market entry price of the price decontrolled formulations, the existing ‘price monitoring’ mechanism may not be as effective, as in future more and more high price patented non-schedule formulations are expected to be introduced in the market.

However, the government seems to have drafted a different drug policy, which has now been referred to a new Group of Ministers for approval. It is worth noting that to make the PPP proposal of the industry effective, the Ministry of Health, both at the centre and also at the state levels, will require to quickly initiate significant ‘capacity building’ exercises in the primary and also in the secondary healthcare infrastructural facilities. FICCI is reported to have suggested to the Government for an investment of around US$ 80 billion to create over 2 million hospital beds for similar capacity building exercises.

Frugal budgetary allocation towards healthcare could well indicate that the government is gradually shifting its role from public healthcare provider to healthcare facilitator for the private sectors to help building the required capacity. In such a scenario, it is imperative for the government to realize that the lack of even basic primary healthcare infrastructure leave aside other financial incentives, could impede effective penetration of private sectors into semi-urban and rural areas. PPP model should be worked out to address such issues, as well.

2. PPP to leverage the strength of Information Technology (IT) to considerably neutralize the healthcare delivery system weaknesses:

Excellence in ‘Information Technology’ (IT) is a well recognized strength that India currently possesses. This strengths needs to be leveraged through PPP to improve the process weaknesses. Harnessing IT strengths, in the areas of drug procurement and delivery processes, especially in remote places, could hone the healthcare delivery mechanism, immensely.

3. PPP in ‘Telemedicine’:

‘‘Telemedicine” is another IT enabled technology that can be widely used across the nation to address rural healthcare issues like, distant learning, disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment of ailments.
Required medicines for treatment could be made available to the patients through ‘Jan Aushadhi’ initiative of the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), by properly utilising the Government controlled public distribution outlets like, ration shops and post offices, which are located even in far flung and remote villages of India.

4. PPP in healthcare financing for all:

Unlike many other countries, over 72 percent of Indian population pay out of pocket to meet their healthcare expenses.

While out of a population of 1.3 billion in China, 250 million are covered by insurance; another 250 million are partially covered and the balance 800 million is not covered by any insurance, in India total number of population who have some healthcare financing coverage will be around 200 million and the penetration of health insurance is just around 3.5% of the population. India is fast losing grounds to China mainly due to their better response to healthcare needs of the country.

As the government has announced ‘Rashtriya Swasthaya Bima Yojna (RSBY)’ for the BPL families, an integrated and robust healthcare financing model for all, is expected to address the affordability issue more effectively.

According to a survey done by National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), 40% of the people hospitalised in India borrow money or sell assets to cover their medical expenses. A large number of population cannot afford to required treatment, at all.


An integrated approach by creating effective healthcare infrastructure across the country, leveraging IT throughout the healthcare space and telemedicine, appropriately structured robust ‘Health Insurance’ schemes for all strata of society, supported by evenly distributed ‘Jan Aushadhi’ outlets, deserve consideration of the government to improve access to affordable healthcare to a vast majority of population of the country, significantly.

Well researched PPP models in all these areas, involving the stakeholders, need to be effectively implemented, sooner, to address this pressing issue.

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.