Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

Regulating the Private Health Sector to Eliminate COVID-19

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Regulation of private sector to deal with the COVID-19.

Context

The current COVID-19 crisis that India is battling has brought into sharp focus the public health system’s inadequacy to cope with it.

Contradictory scenario between public and private healthcare delivery

  • The contrast between public and private: Hospitals with state-of-the-art equipment rivalling five-star hotels in their facilities are mushrooming mostly in cities even as the overburdened public hospitals are valiantly fighting to cope. 
  • Dismal picture in rural areas: As far as the rural areas are concerned, the community health centres and primary health centres and sub-centres present an even more dismal picture in terms of availability of medicine stock, trained para-medical staff, and doctors and nurses.
  • However, it is not as if urban hospitals offer patients excellent care. A common and widely held general misperception is that the private healthcare system is better than the public one.
  • Why private is not always better? Complaints of non-transparent billing, demanding exorbitant sums in advance even in a medical emergency, and cutting corners in services are all too familiar, as are cases of the denial of services.
  • In semi-rural areas and towns, the private sector is not necessarily similar to hospitals in cities.
  • The private hospitals in these areas are small and have basic infrastructure and limited medical and non-medical staff. Unlike the cities, the power and water supply in these areas also constitute a problem to the functioning of these hospitals.

Problems in the public healthcare system

  • Within the public sector health system, there are a number of trends again that add to the dismal picture.
  • A high number of patients: Doctors in the public hospitals deal with an overwhelming number of patients majorly from the poor and marginalised sections.
  • Issue of contractual staff: Health activists have also pointed out that the growing trend of contractual hiring of paramedical and allied staff leads to an insecurity among them, and thus affects overall caregiving to patients.
  • Consequently, the poor patients’ families, frustrated by the lack of infrastructure and services, turn their anger upon the doctors and nurses.
  • What are the implications? The constant vilification of the public hospital staff coupled with starving these hospitals of resources has led to the view that the private hospitals are “much better” despite their exorbitant rates.

State-wise variation in healthcare

  • States subject: Health is a state subject, and it is well known that the health delivery systems are not uniform across states.
  • Kerala a role model: Kerala is often held up as a role model generally, and even now in the manner in which it has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis.
  • The dismal system in North India: As it is, certain states in North India have abysmal healthcare systems, and a couple does not have any testing facilities, the media has reported.

Getting the private sector involved in COVID-19 testing

  • Undoubtedly, at present, the private sector must be involved in screening, tests and treatment for COVID-19.
  • The highly trained professionals in this sector can contribute enormously by helping scale up the testing efforts.
  • Importance of large-scale testing: In South Korea too, it was large-scale testing that was instrumental in reducing mortality rates.
  • The pricing issue: Services across sectors must not be priced differently at a time like this. The media has reported that there is a difference of opinion between the government and private sector on the price of COVID-19 tests flowing from the prices of test kits.
  • Need for the protocol: A clear and non-negotiable protocol for the private sector must be established regarding the present crisis and how the government is going to help financially and otherwise in dealing with it.

Way forward

  • Regulate the testing, screening and treatment facilities: The experience with the government offering subsidies to hospitals, especially in urban areas in terms of land and other concessions, has not borne out desired objectives such as better care for the poor.
  • Taking a cue from this, the testing, screening, and treatment facilities must be regulated in terms of pricing and quality.
  • Focus on strengthening the public health system: The Supreme Court has held healthcare to be a fundamental right under Article 21. The biggest lesson of the current crisis is that political will must focus on strengthening the public health system.

Conclusion

The finance minister has announced a package of `1.7 lakh crore to deal with this catastrophic situation. This is welcome, but long-term resource allocation to invigorate the public health system must be a continual and parallel process.

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