State of Healthcare sector in India – Pre and Post covid-19 scenario

A year back on March 24, 2020, India imposed nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus (covid-19)

State of Healthcare sector in India – Pre and Post covid-19 scenario

A year back on March 24, 2020, India imposed nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus (covid-19).  The virus which surfaced in Chinese seafood and poultry market in December 2019 spread rampantly in other nations and brought the entire world into standstill.  Covid-19 is one of the worst pandemic the world has seen after the Spanish flu in 1918.  The deadly infection has infected 12.96 crore people, loss of 28 lakh lives as on April 1, 2021 according to worldmeters statistics. This count is disheartening but the pandemic also had several economic consequences too due to lockdown imposed by all the nations including India to control the spread of the infection.  Healthcare sector was the epicentre of the pandemic which faced humongous burden of deploying and investing in medical equipment, manpower, facilities to treat the patients, losing several healthcare workers involved in the treatment of the patients on one hand and on the other hand the sector got hit owing to sharp drop in the surgeries and international patients.  The article details about the state of healthcare system in India, post covid-developments and way forward.

India as one of the popular medical tourist destinations in the world – Pre-covid times

Medical tourist as Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) refers to individuals travelling across international borders for medical treatment. While we often hear that many Indian doctors serving as doctors in the foreign countries.  India is also one of the popular and preferred destination for the medical treatment.  Compared to developed nations which typically have high cost of treatment, many destinations such as India, Singapore, Malayasia, Thailand and Turkey are well-known for their medical services.   One must be wondering how India features in this list? India enjoys merits such as availability of the world class doctors, medical personnel, affordable cost of treatment, research and development and several hospitals are accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI).  In addition, India also has highest number of English-speaking people which brings in ease of communication and reduces the language barrier with foreign tourists.  The government has also streamlined the visa application processes and given several visa exemptions for foreigners seeking medical treatment making it convenient for travellers visit the country.  The country also scores in terms of other therapies like Ayurveda, Naturopathy and Yoga. All these merits resulted in Indian medical tourism market is growing at 18% y-o-y and is expected to reach US$ 9 billion by 2020

While India emerges as one of the most visited nations, if we closely evaluate the scenario back home there were several challenges. Indian healthcare system divided into public (owned by government) and private. Public healthcare is for community programmes catering to people in the rural and smaller towns of India while private sector was dominant in tier-I, tier-II and tier-III cities.  Despite the strong economic growth, the spending on the healthcare sector remained way below 1% of the GDP. The Rural Health Survey 2018-19 stated that there is an 85.6% shortfall of surgeons, 75% deficit of obstetricians and gynaecologists, 87.2% of physicians, and 79.9% shortfall of paediatricians in the primary health sector in rural areas.While the for several decades there were disparities and inequality wherein only the rich had access to good quality medical facilities; the National Health policies attempted to provide good healthcare services access to all and bring in more inclusive healthcare system for all. 

India’s healthcare system dealing with the pandemic blow

Covid-19 pandemic which had completely shaken up healthcare system of some of the developed nations like US, UK and Europe; has badly hit India’s healthcare sector too.  While the hospitals across the country along with medical and paramedical workers are working rigorously by risking their own lives to save the lives of the people of this nation.  There are several challenges the healthcare sector is facing given the huge population. Some of the key challenges are huge shortage of beds, dearth of healthcare workers, number of staffers getting infected, shortage of critical equipment and medical devices, raw materials as many were imported from other countries including China which also resulted in sharp increase in the prices of these devices in the short term. The pricing cap imposed by the government for covid treatment, biomedical waste across cities and the loss of business due to drop in the international patients and surgeries are impacting the cash flows of the hospitals. The situation has got aggravated further with the second wave of the virus in 2021 and rising cases adding to more pressure on the healthcare system in India.

In a bid to fight the pandemic and support the healthcare sector, the government of India in the latest Union Budget on February 2021, increased the overall allocation to health and wellbeing by 137% to Rs 2.23 lakh crore for the fiscal 2022 compared to budget 2020-21 estimate of Rs 94,452 crore which also includes Rs 35,000 crore for immunisation with Covid-19 vaccines. The government emphasised on the holistic approach by strengthening three critical areas - preventive health, curative health and well-being.  On January 16, 2021, government also launched first phase of the pan-India roll out by providing emergency approvals to  Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccine.  Further, India is also providing vaccine to many countries across the globe.  The government has supplied 644.26 lakh vaccine dosses to 84 countries via grants, commercial purchases as well which has got international accolades for the nation to help the world fight the pandemic.  The government has also decided to provide vaccine to people above 45 years of age from  April. 

Way forward

The resurgence in the covid-19 cases across the country recently is biggest concern given the pressure it will continued to add to already burdened healthcare sector. Further, the country is also dealing with economic consequences in terms of slowing growth, rising inflation, rising fiscal deficit and unemployment.  As a result of which the country cannot afford to go for full lockdown like the one imposed in 2020.  Hence, the government need to expand its vaccination programme. Also, need to strengthen early infection detection mechanism, spread more awareness on preventive measures taken to curb the spread of the virus.  Going forward, while the government is planning to increase public health spending to 2.5% of the country's GDP by 2025. Given the immense pressure on the healthcare sector, many stakeholders of the sector expect government to give short term support to the health care sector particularly those in smaller towns and rural areas facing financial challenges, tax reliefs, waivers or grants given the loss of business and stalled medical tourism amid the pandemic. We continued to hope that the healthcare sector along with government support and each of us acting responsibly can tide over the biggest health crisis hitting the mankind.

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