The Pandemic Proved the Need To Strengthen the Healthcare Infra

Healthcare experts want the government to consider increasing healthcare expenditure above 2.5 per cent of the GDP

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The last couple of years has been a tough period for most industries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though for some industries, the pandemic created unbelievably golden opportunities to thrive in their field, for industries like healthcare, the pandemic has highlighted the structural gaps in the current healthcare system and the significance of digital health.

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Though the Indian government increased the healthcare budget by 137 per cent in the FY2021-22, the measures taken were to handle the situation at hand, and not a long-term investment to make healthcare future-proof.

A resilient and inclusive medical infrastructure is essential for India to handle inevitable situations in the future that could be catastrophic like the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are a couple of budget expectations from our healthcare experts who are primarily focused on making healthcare available for everyone, including tier-III towns and rural regions.

Focus more on digital health

Though not ready, the healthcare industry embraced technology innovations at scale during the COVID pandemic to contain the spread of the contagion. For example, the use of telehealth skyrocketed during the pandemic.Stats from a survey conducted by Statista between March and May 2020, show that nearly 85 per cent of clinicians used digital platforms and teleconsultation during the pandemic, in which 80 per cent of teleconsultation services were from first-time users.For years, ‘distance’ has been a key barrier to accessing timely healthcare for millions across the globe. But, during the pandemic, distance was the only means of containing the spread. With technology, the healthcare industry can shrink and increase distance at the same time while enhancing system preparedness and responsiveness for any situation, be it an epidemic or a pandemic.

A real-time example of impact created by digital health is Arogya Setu, primarily a mobile application developed by the National Informatics Centre under the ministry of electronics and information technology to aid the government in the fight against COVID-19.

We see that several such digital health platforms are being created indigenously and have the potential to significantly improve both the reach and quality of healthcare to the Indian population. Any government incentives to support startups building digital solutions would help bring more patient data online helping with efficient distribution of healthcare services.

Also, investing in digital health will help India meet the doctor to population ratio recommended by WHO (World Health Organization), in every state, particularly in public healthcare sectors.

WHO recommends a doctor to population ratio of 1:1000. Only 11 among the 28 states in India have met the WHO recommended doctor to population ratio. India’s public healthcare system functions at a dismal ratio of 0.08:1000.

Western nations have already started investing in digital health initiatives. For instance, Australia has invested $870.5 million to modernize the health system and ensure interoperability within the digital health infrastructure. With digital health, India can make immense improvements in healthcare access, delivery, efficiency and productivity of healthcare professionals.

Reduced GST on healthcare products

Besides accessibility, healthcare services and products must be affordable, particularly in a nation like India, which has around 84 million people (which is around 6 per cent of the total population) living in extreme poverty conditions. According to estimates, due to the sudden outbreak of COVID-19, an additional 150-199 million people will be pushed into poverty in 2021-2022.

One way to make healthcare products and services affordable for the masses is reducing GST on healthcare infrastructure products and not just services. Also, reductions in import duty and simplification of FDI (foreign direct investment) norms will help in making healthcare services and products more affordable.

Allocate budget for trauma centers in PHCs and CHCs

Including trauma systems in PHCs (primary health centers) and CHCs (community health centers) is a costly process but an essential one for India, a country that has the youngest workforce but with increasing incidence of chronic illnesses. In fact, healthcare experts are looking forward to a sharp rise in healthcare expenses in the current as well as the coming decade. Emerging technologies like AI can help sharply cut expenses and time for identifying traumatic cases that need immediate attention.

Hence, the government should consider allocating a budget for including trauma centers equipped with machines powered by advanced technologies like AI (for example, AI-enabled PACS) in PHCs and CHCs.

Extend National Health Protection Scheme

Further, healthcare experts want the government to consider increasing healthcare expenditure above 2.5 per cent of the GDP. Experts also look forward to the government extending its National Health Protection Scheme to migrant workers and the BPL population. 

According to a recent survey conducted by NSS (National Sample Survey) on health expenditure coverage under the government as well as private insurance providers, 85.9 per cent of rural Indians don’t have any health expenditure coverage.