The need for urgent healthcare reform in India: The way forward.

If we look at the history of development of the developed countries of the world, we shall see that all of them had invested and even now are investing to improve the social framework of the country where education and health get the top priority. Continuous reform measures in these two key areas of any nation, have proved to be the key drivers of their economic growth.Very recently we have witnessed some major reform measures in the area of ‘primary education’ in India. The right to primary education has now been made a fundamental right of every citizen of the country, through a constitutional amendment.As focus on education is very important to realize the economic potential of any nation, so is the healthcare space of the country. India will not be able to realize its dream to be one of the economic superpowers of the world without sharp focus and significant resource allocation in these two areas.

Healthcare in India:

There are various hurdles though to address the healthcare issues of the country effectively, but these are not definitely insurmountable. National Rural health Mission is indeed an admirable scheme announced by the Government. However, many feel that poor governance will not be able make this scheme to become as effective as it should be. Implementation of such schemes warrants effective leadership at all levels of implementation. Similar apprehensions can be extended to many other healthcare initiatives including the health insurance program for below the poverty line (BPL) population of the country.

A quick snapshot on the overall healthcare system of India:

In terms of concept, India has a universal healthcare system where health is primarily a state subject.

Primary Health Centres (PHCs) located in the cities, districts or rural areas provide medical treatment free of cost to the citizens of the country. The focus areas of these PHCs, as articulated by the government, are the treatment of common illnesses, immunization, malnutrition, pregnancy and child birth. For secondary or tertiary care, patients are referred to the state or district level hospitals.

The public healthcare delivery system is grossly inadequate and does not function with a very high degree of efficiency, though some of the government hospitals like, All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) are among the best hospitals in India.

Most essential drugs, if available, are dispensed free of charge from the public hospitals/clinics.
Outpatient treatment facilities available in the government hospitals are either free or available at a nominal cost. In AIIMS an outpatient card is available at a nominal onetime fee and thereafter outpatient medical advice is free to the patient.

However, the cost of inpatient treatment in the public hospitals though significantly less than the private hospitals, depends on the economic condition of the patient and the type of facilities that the individual will require. The patients who are from below the poverty line (BPL) families are usually not required to pay the cost of treatment. Such costs are subsidized by the government.

However, in India only 35 percent of the population have access to affordable modern medicines. The healthcare facilities in the public sector are not only grossly inadequate, but also understaffed and underfinanced. As a result, whatever services are available in most of the public healthcare facilities, are of substandard quality to say the least, which compel patients to go for expensive private healthcare providers. Majority of the population of India cannot afford such high cost of private healthcare providers though of much better quality.

A recent report on healthcare in India:

A recent report published by McKinsey Quarterly , titled ‘A Healthier Future for India’, recommends, subsidising health care and insurance for the country’s poor people would be necessary to improve the healthcare system. To make the healthcare system of India work satisfactorily, the report also recommends, public-private partnership for better insurance coverage, widespread health education and better disease prevention.

The way forward:

In my view, the country should adopt a ten pronged approach towards a new healthcare reform process:

1. The government should assume the role of provider of preventive and primary healthcare across the nation.

2. At the same time, the government should play the role of enabler to create public-private partnership (PPP) projects for secondary and tertiary healthcare services at the state and district levels.

3. Through PPP a robust health insurance infrastructure needs to be put in place, very urgently.

4. These insurance companies will be empowered to negotiate all fees payable by the patients for getting their ailments treated including doctors/hospital fees and the cost of medicines, with the concerned persons/companies, with a key objective to ensure access to affordable high quality healthcare to all.

5. Create an independent regulatory body for healthcare services to regulate and monitor the operations of both public and private healthcare providers/institutions, including the health insurance sector.

6. Levy a ‘healthcare cess’ to all, for effective implementation of this new healthcare reform process.

7. Effectively manage the corpus thus generated to achieve the healthcare objectives of the nation through the healthcare services regulatory authority.

8. Make this regulatory authority accountable for ensuring access to affordable high quality healthcare services to the entire population of the country.

9. Make operations of such public healthcare services transparent to the civil society and cost-neutral to the government, through innovative pricing model based on economic status of an individual.

10. Allow independent private healthcare providers to make reasonable profit out of the investments made by them

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.

Simmering discontentment in the functioning of the Indian Patent Office (IPO) – urgent need to tighten the ‘loose knots’ in the system.

Indian Patent office (IPO) though is headquartered at Kolkata, because of some unknown reason, the office of the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks (CGPDTM)is located in Mumbai with other two offices at New Delhi and Chennai. Moreover, the office of the ‘Patent Information System’ is located at Nagpur. Scattered location of the IPO, many believe, could be an impediment in ensuring uniformity in operations between all its units. Such an opinion is debatable though, I shall not deliberate on this issue in this article.The point that I shall argue upon is the crying need in the IPO to tighten 15 identified ‘loose knots’in its operation, which are causing considerable concern within stakeholders, who are casting serious aspersions in its efficiency.There are some areas where our IPO is doing quite well. I shall also dwell upon those areas before highlighting the areas of improvements.

The new IPR regime came into force from January 1, 2005. Even 4 years down the line, the IPO still remains grossly understaffed. Growing dissatisfaction with the current functioning of the IPO is fast sapping initial enthusiasm of the innovators on the new IPR regime in the country. ‘The glass’ now perpetually looks as ‘half empty’, as it were and will continue to do so, if corrective measures are not taken, forthwith.

The information available from the IPO website indicates that all the four centers put together, there are just 134 Examiners, 31 Assistant Controllers, 4 Deputy Controllers and 1 Joint Controller. Staff attrition rate within the IPOs has been reported to be reasonably high, which incidentally appears to be one of the key issues of their inefficiency. These trained IPO personnel are being poached mainly by the private sector enterprises, offering significantly higher remuneration. At the same time, there appears to be 3 times increase in the number of applications filed in the last five years, complicating the situation further.

The silver lining is, despite all these, the performance of IPO quantitatively speaking, is really not as poor. Around 11,000 patents were granted by the IPOs in 2007-08. This number, when translated into average number of patents granted per day, works out to be 50. This figure, when viewed in terms of number of patents granted against the number of applications made, compares reasonably well with the developed nations of the world like, USA and EU. It is worth noting that in those countries the product patent regime is in place, since long.

Indian Patent Act 2005 is believed to be more stringent than the prevailing Patent Acts in the USA or EU. It is good to note that quoting the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) it has been reported that each Indian Patent Examiner examines about 100 applications per annum against 50 to 80 in the USA and the EU. This is indeed laudable.

Indian Patent Office is currently going through ‘capacity building’ exercises. The efforts being made towards this direction are expected to make the IPOs more efficient, hopefully, in pursuit of excellence.

India has recently been approved as an International Searching and Preliminary Examining Authority under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). This, in turn, will significantly increase the workload of the IPO.

When we are mentioning about the PCT, perhaps it will not be out of place to say that some section in India argues in favour of the need to include the International Nonproprietary Names (INN) in the title of pharmaceutical patent applications by the IPO. However, as INNs are not required in the title of patent applications under Article 27(1) of the PCT, such a requirement, in my view, could appear to conflict with the PCT.

Thus, it has now become more essential that the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks (CGPDTM) tightens the ‘loose knots’ in the IPO system, immediately, to make it efficient and effective.

In this article I shall not go into much debated and discussed, ‘Indian Patent Manual’ issue. I shall only submit the following 15 suggestions towards achieving the above objective:

1. To effectively cope with its growing workload, the Patent office should upgrade its IT facilities and ensure that patent examiners are trained to handle the filing and prosecution of patent applications.

2. Electronic-filing of patent applications has been introduced, but there is no facility of paying the fees online by credit card. This facility should be introduced to make it more convenient for applicants to file patent application online. This will also add speed to the process.

3. Electronic prosecution of patent applications should be introduced to make the patent prosecution paperless and more efficient.

4. To encourage applicants to file applications electronically, incentives such as reduced fees should be offered to applicants who file their applications electronically.

5. The Patent Office has in the past experienced problems in locating and managing physical application files. It is therefore recommended that the Patent Office introduce systems for better management and storage of physical files. Using a system of bar codes on the physical files could be one such system.

6. The Patent Office should digitize all of its physical files so that file histories of each application will be available online.

7. The Indian Patents Database and the Indian Designs Database to be released without further delay.

8. An efficient system to be introduced to ensure timely publication of all patent applications and proceedings that are eligible for publication in the technical journal of the IPO. Currently there is inordinate delay, for example Delhi Patent Office is now publishing applications for 2005

9. Patent applications that are published in the official gazette have minimal information. It is therefore recommended that the official gazette include more details of the applications in order to avoid any frivolous or unnecessary oppositions being filed.

10. The Patent office does not have any centers, which provide assistance to applicants for filing or prosecuting applications. It is therefore recommended that assistance centers should be established to help applicants to file and prosecute applications in India.

11. Clear guidelines to be issued for conducting pre-grant and post grant opposition proceedings. Presently they are being handled in an arbitrary manner

12. In order to avoid any frivolous pre-grant opposition during the prosecution of the application, the Patent Office should introduce a fixed fee that has to be paid to the Patent Office at the time of filing of a pre-grant opposition. This will help to avoid frivolous delays in the grant of the patent.

13. In order to introduce an efficient system of patent prosecution, it is recommended that the Patent Office adjust patent term to compensate patentees for any delay in the grant of the patent that reduces the term of the patent, when such delay is caused solely by the Patent office.

14. Decision making and its communication to all concerned to be made faster at the IPO. A system to be instituted for issuing the operative part of the decision first, followed by details of the decision taken. These should be advertised immediately in the technical journal to close proceedings at the earliest. Delays are leading to extensive delays in the grant of patents even if the proceedings have been concluded (opposition or otherwise) attracting serial and frivolous pre-grant oppositions. Such delays are also preventing the patent applicants to get their grants and are, therefore, unable to initiate infringement proceedings against infringers quickly, defeating the very purpose of the patent and trademark system.

15. The timeline for an application to be taken up for examination to be clearly defined. Currently, there is no time defined for taking up the applications for examination.

It will indeed be great, if the DIPP and the IPO take note of these suggestions and formalize a process within the IPO to address these issues. A growing discontentment in several areas of operation within the IPO is brewing, both in India and abroad. If such discontentment increases further, it may have serious impact on the credibility of the new IPR regime in India.

Will the Government of India want that to happen? I hope not.

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.