A Complete Abdication of Responsibility

The private healthcare sector in India is now increasingly being looked upon as a sector that should focus on doing good rather than being run as a responsible business enterprise. The government wants the private hospitals to be good Samaritans and treat patients at such low prices that the business itself becomes unviable!!!

Essentially, the government wants its duties to be discharged by the private sector.

This is a complete abdication of responsibility on the part of the government and totally unfair to the private sector players and their investors. It is a well-known fact that public healthcare expenditure in India remains abysmally low at under 1.4% of the GDP. This compares poorly even with countries in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the WHO World Health Statistics 2015, the public sector in India spent 1.16% on health as a percentage of the GDP, ranking 187th among 194 countries. A recent report in The Wire says ”global evidence on health spending shows that unless a country spends at least 5-6% of its GDP on health, basic healthcare needs are seldom met”.

Another recent report in The Mint pointed out ”The World Health Organization estimates that India spent about $267 per capita on health care in PPP adjusted terms in 2014—China spent three times that amount, Brazil five times, European nations 10 times and the US 20 times” 

To make matters far worse is the fact that much of the funds allocated to the sector remain unutilized. This is nothing less than criminal negligence. Sample these facts reported in The Hindustan Times in August 2017.

”More recently, in a performance audit of the Reproductive and Child Health scheme under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) tabled in the Parliament last month, CAG said the cumulative unspent amount in 27 states increased from Rs. 7,375 crore in 2011-12 to Rs. 9,509 crore in 2015-16.”

Since the government allocates a minuscule amount for public health and even spends less, the out-of-pocket (OOP) expenditure in India remains high. In the year 2014-15, 62.42% of health spending was borne by the citizens themselves. Unexpected medical expenditure remains the single largest cause of individual families being pushed below the poverty line. The National Health Policy Draft of 2015 estimated that ”nearly 6.3 crore people are faced with poverty every year because they do not have financial protection for their healthcare needs“.With the OOP remaining high, there is a sense of anger and frustration amongst the consumers and the politicians have been cleverly channeling this palpable anger towards private healthcare providers by painting them as uncaring, profiteering and worse.

Now compare this with what is happening in the private healthcare space in India. A recent report (August 2017) in The Scroll cites a PwC study saying that private health spending in India was more than double the government’s expenditure, at 3.3% of the GDP in 2014. The private sector consisting of individual doctors, clinics, nursing homes, diagnostic chains, trust hospitals and corporate hospitals provide care to more than 80% of our people. A report by the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF)  published last month points out that healthcare sector in India is the largest employer in the country. The sector is expected to record a CAGR of 16.5% between 2008-2020 and the industry size is expected to grow to USD 280 bn.

The same report quotes Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) ”The hospital and diagnostic centers attracted Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) worth US$ 4.34 billion between April 2000 and March 2017.”

A mere glance at this data indicates that while the government has wantonly abandoned its duty of providing good quality healthcare to the citizens of the country, the private healthcare sector continues to make significant investments. Private investments are by definition ”for profit” investments and are made in the rightful expectation of a reasonable return on the capital employed.

Instead of spending scarce public funds on building new infrastructure, decongest government hospitals, ensuring efficient and smooth management of these hospitals and providing greater access to the citizens to public healthcare, the government is busy pandering to the masses through populist measures and what may even be called as bullying.

Populist policy announcements, which are not even clearly thought through are being made every day. It has been announced yesterday that any citizen in the city of Delhi who fails to get timely medical attention in a Delhi government hospital can approach a private healthcare institution and avail of cash-less services, which will be reimbursed to the hospital by the government later at rates, which are very low. The private hospital has no choice but to accept the patient and treat him at government-mandated pricing.

This kind of policy-making, akin to shooting from the hip must stop.

The government should define its own role in the healthcare sector in the country.

It must be said, even though it may sound harsh that the responsibility of providing good quality healthcare to those who cannot afford private healthcare squarely lies with the government.This is a responsibility, which it must not attempt to shirk or palm off to the private sector.

The views expressed are personal

 

 

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The Myth of Overcharging in Private Corporate Hospitals in India

Why is it so easy for us to believe that corporate hospitals ‘overcharge’?

If one was to poll educated, middle-class Indians, mostly professionals and smart and rational people, most would unhesitatingly aver that private corporate hospitals in India inflate their bills and take patients for a ride. If one was to ask them the same question with respect to a five star hotel, a dinner at a fancy restaurant or even an airline, where fares vary on a daily (and sometimes on an hourly basis), the answer would usually be that, yes they are expensive, but than they do offer certain comforts. I am yet to hear someone moan about a luxury hotel, overcharging.

One of the reasons for this perhaps is because expenditure on healthcare is almost always a forced expenditure. No one goes to a hospital to enjoy a few days of surgery, rest and recuperation. We spend in a hospital only because we do not have a choice. This expenditure is also usually unplanned, which means that it is an unwelcome drain on one’s savings. Thus, we hate to spend in a hospital, anyways.

To make matters far worse, the expenses in a hospital are also uncertain. They also do not guarantee the desired outcome. Thus, it is possible that in a hospital we may end up paying far more than what was initially indicated and we may also end up not fully regaining good health. Sometimes, we may end up paying an obscene amount and also lose a loved one. In these situations, it is almost certain that we will blame the hospital for ‘overcharging’ and not providing proper care.

Then there is the old inherited belief that healthcare is a noble profession and the providers of healthcare services should aim to serve the society rather than try and make some profits for their shareholders. This belief is so ingrained in our psyche, right from our childhood, that it is impossible to reconcile to the present day reality of private healthcare is as much a business as any other. An entrepreneur invests a very large sum of money upfront in creating infrastructure, buying state of the art equipment, hiring highly skilled and experienced clinicians and sustaining cash losses for many long years before he makes a profit. Yet we grudge him this and believe that since he has chosen to invest in healthcare, he must continue to serve humanity without expecting a reasonable return on his investment.

This sadly is the perceptual reality of private healthcare even amongst the well-educated, well to do people in our contemporary society.

Juxtapose this with the reality of high-end quality tertiary care in India being the cheapest in the world. Thousands of people travel from all across the world to avail of India’s high standards of healthcare at prices, which by global standards are almost unbelievable. Yet, in India, private healthcare institutions are reviled as expensive, profiteering and seen as overcharging. I remember meeting a CEO of a private insurance company in the US. The meeting happened at a global conference on medical value travel.

‘So, where are you folk, from’?

‘We are from New Delhi, India’.

‘Aha, India, so tell me something about your hospital’

The usual spiel about the hospital followed. I talked about some great work we were doing in Cardiac Surgery.

‘So do you guys do ‘bypass surgery’

‘Yes, we do. In fact a lot of it’

‘In a month, how many cases, would you be doing in your hospital?’

To keep things simple, I told him that in just one hospital we do about 10 surgeries a day. The gentleman clearly thought I had no idea of what I was talking about.

‘That seems a lot, how much does a bypass surgery cost?’

I thought, I should not tell him the real cost of USD 4500, lest he thinks that I was completely unaware of the cost of a bypass surgery.

‘Sir, we charge USD 10000 for the surgery’.

‘Well, that is impossible, it is humanly not possible to perform successful bypass surgeries for USD 10000 anywhere in the world’.

‘So what is your success rate?’

‘Well, it is close to 99%’.

‘That is simply impossible, we don’t have these kinds of numbers even in the US’.

I hesitatingly asked him, what in his opinion, would be a reasonable estimate for a bypass surgery in the US.

‘Well, I would say anything below USD 100000, would be difficult’.

‘But, you just can’t do this for USD 10000, there must be a catch somewhere’

By now, I was becoming a little hot under the collar. I told the gentleman, that we would be delighted to host him at our hospital in India and show him how the impossible is done. He would still not believe me.

Finally, I told him that just as he doesn’t understand, how the surgery can be done for USD 10000, I fail to understand, how does it cost upwards of USD 100000 in the US.

The gentleman never did accept my invitation to travel to Delhi to see how we worked. This is a true incident, and I narrate it only to underscore the point that while the world wonders at how private healthcare in India is able to deliver high-quality medical care at such low prices, patients in India, believe that the same healthcare services at even lower price points are obscenely expensive.

Private healthcare costs, though rising, still remain one of the lowest in the world. Large corporate hospitals have well-defined billing policies and most of the bills are generated through a sophisticated HIS system. After having worked for over 15 years in large private corporate hospitals in India, I am yet to come across a stated (or even unstated) policy, which says that let us overcharge for our services from our patients. The pricing is usually based on a cost-plus model and the ceiling is determined by the competitive situation in a particular market. Finally, the consumers always have a choice. If they find a particular hospital expensive, they can choose to go to the one that they believe is rightly priced.

Private corporate hospitals in India usually provide world-class care, medical outcomes comparable with the best in the world, highest possible service levels and at prices lower than anywhere else in the world.

By clamoring for more, let us not destroy that we should all be rightfully proud of.

A Time for Reflection

The last week of December is usually a time for reflection.

And the private healthcare industry in India has a lot to think about. The last two months have been those of turmoil for the industry. The crisis related to the implementation of a draconian Clinical Establishment’s Act in Karnataka led to angry protests by the medical community in Bangalore, while in Delhi two cases of alleged overcharging and medical negligence at the two leading hospital chains caused an unprecedented furor. Much has been said about these cases, I won’t add more, however, we must reflect upon what lies behind these flair-ups.

These cases must not be considered as an isolated outbreak of public anger with the media and the politicians blowing up the issues. While that did happen, we must look at them as a trigger for a far deeper malaise.

For a long time, private healthcare in India is increasingly being viewed by patients with a great deal of distrust. With the public healthcare in tatters, the consumers continue to flock to the private establishments, where the care and services are of high quality, however, they no longer trust their doctors and hospitals. This is an extremely worrying sign because the only thing that binds patients and clinicians is trust, an implicit faith in the system that the hospitals and the clinicians will always act in the interest of the patient.

We must ponder over what has led to this catastrophic erosion of trust.

Private healthcare systems are being increasingly looked upon as businesses with commercial interests, which far out-weigh patient’s interests. The media has been peddling this narrative for a while, highlighting cases of ‘wrong billing’ without diving into the arcane of what exactly is wrongly billed. Selective charges of profiteering on things like syringes and gloves are bandied about causing more damage. Somehow, the real narrative of hospital profitability measured in terms of financial parameters such as Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) do not find any mention in these stories. The fact that most private healthcare companies are barely profitable just doesn’t seem to register. Private Healthcare systems need to address this urgently. They must get together and build a counter-narrative, which highlights their often precarious finances and the enormous risks they have taken to build a healthcare system, which actually takes care of the needs of the majority of the people of our country.

While this needs to happen on the external front a lot of house cleaning must also happen internally. The hospitals must review their pricing structures and make them more transparent. The patients today are educated and if the components of a hospital bill are explained to them in detail, I am sure many will understand and appreciate.

The other big issue that destroys trust is the difference that the patients find in the estimates given at the time of admission and the final bill that they end up with. Medicine is at best an inexact science and in many cases, it is hard to predict a patient’s course during hospitalization. However, large private chains do have the data and technology to be able to predict estimates with a reasonable level of accuracy in a high number of cases. Thus a system can analyze bills of say, the last 500 patients who underwent a bypass grafting, exclude the outliers and predict the probability of the bill is a certain amount. This can be shared with the patients transparently. Even if hospitals do this for cases of planned and routine surgeries, I am sure the trust levels will increase.

The real trust builder is, of course, ensuring proper engagement and communication with the patients. Large hospitals, with hundreds of patients, often forget to pay enough attention to individuals leading to a sense of isolation and abandonment. The hospitals need to establish protocols for patient communication. The clinicians must sit down with the patients and their caregivers and explain how the patients are doing in the hospital, the challenges that they foresee and the prognosis. My view is that even if the prognosis is grave, it should be shared transparently with the caregivers. This should be done with great sensitivity and empathy and in a language which is shorn of all the jargon.

Finally, the biggest builder of trust is the time that a clinician spends with the patient and their caregivers. In busy hospitals, clinicians often just do not have enough time to spend with their patients. The out-patient consultations are frequently cursory and fleeting, often leaving the patient wondering whether their doctor has even understood their medical condition or not. While admitted to the hospital, sometimes patients don’t even see their surgeons even when they are being wheeled into the OT’s. Why can’t we have a system, where the operating clinician would himself visit the patient either in their rooms or in the pre-op area, reassure them once just before they face the knife. There can be many such processes that can be established, which gives greater comfort to the patients.

The media noise of profiteering resonates with patients and caregivers only because they find their hospital experiences sterile and scary. As the healthcare costs mount, the patients will need better experiences for them to trust their hospitals and care providers.

My belief is that the time has come for private healthcare providers in the country to walk the talk on patient-centric care. No amount of external regulation will help build the lost trust. It is only actions, which build trust in patients and their caregivers, which will help regain the lost ground.

And once we regain our patient’s trust, they will not find us profiteering nor will the media’s false charges stick.

Here is wishing all my readers a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

The views expressed are personal

 

The Aftermath

While the slug-fest between the government of Delhi and private healthcare providers, the Indian Medical Association/Delhi Medical Association and a completely partisan media continues, one is left wondering about the possible aftermath of this ugly episode. The media will soon move on to other stories and the government having scored some brownie points and having successfully demonstrated its ‘might’ will look at another vote-catching device, only the citizens of Delhi will be stuck with a much worse healthcare system.

Let us look at some of the reasons for this.

With the kind of sheer hostility that is being shown by the consumers towards private healthcare and individual doctors, many are already talking about not accepting seriously sick patients. Their fear is that if the patient dies in the hospital, they will be blamed for the death and they run the very real risk of being publicly abused by vicious and ignorant television anchors, beaten up by patient attendants and may be sacked from their jobs. In an environment where the media and the patients believe that it is the doctor’s job to get them well and that he is fair game if the outcome is not the desired one, we are clearly telling our doctors not to treat patients where there is a risk of failure. This will indeed be very sad because as patients we must give our doctors the confidence and the strength to fight the good fight to the best of their skills and ability. That trust is the very basis of the practice of medicine.

The advent of private healthcare had also seen some of the best and the brightest Indian doctors returning to India to work in these corporate hospitals. The world over, Indian doctors and nurses are recognized for their skills and diligence. There is much demand for them all over the world. The prevailing atmosphere of distrust and antipathy is already making many of them uneasy. Many have started regretting their decision to return and work in India. Many who were contemplating to return would now prefer to stay put. Many who had plans to go abroad for training, would now look at ways to bring their plans forward and try to stay abroad longer. One can hardly blame them.

Private hospitals are beginning to realize that it is far more important to have paperwork and video recordings of their patient interactions rather than a caring system, where people are encouraged to go the extra mile to help a patient. Since, the hospitals are not sure when they may be facing a media or a court trial, they will ensure that they are well protected at all times. This will further push up the cost of private healthcare. The undue activism visible today will end up defeating its own purpose.

Setting up and running hospitals is an expensive proposition. Only investors with very deep pockets can build the required infrastructure and sustain operations till they see profits, which happen years later and are meager in any case. If the local governments pandering to their vote-bases arbitrarily decide to shut down hospitals, why would investors put in money to build healthcare infrastructure in the country? The government spends on healthcare are in any case minuscule and compare poorly even with sub-Saharan Africa. The government hospitals are already over-crowded, mismanaged, filthy and without much accountability. If the private investors decide that investing in healthcare is not well worth the risk, where will the people like you and me go for our healthcare needs? If I was planning to set up a hospital in Delhi today, I would certainly think twice.

Working for some of the leading ”corporate” hospitals in India in the last 15 years, I have had the opportunity to travel the world. Everywhere that I have traveled, I have been uniformly asked one question, which is, how has Indian private healthcare system evolved so well. Considering the country’s other developmental parameters, private healthcare, which attracts patients from all over the world (Max Healthcare received patients from 80 countries across the world this year) stands out. Not only is the quality of health care compares well with the world’s best, the costs are the lowest. Ironically, instead of taking pride in our achievements, we are trying our best to run down our hospitals and the people who work in them.

Private healthcare players in Delhi are quite dumb-founded by the political grandstanding, the unwarranted hostility of an ignorant media and worse of all the support of ordinary citizens to this madness. Are we, the citizens of Delhi willing to pay this kind of steep price just because we believe the half-truths being peddled by self-serving politicians and a biased, unprincipled media?

PS: Might be a good idea to find out where these same politicians and media warriors and their families go to when they need serious healthcare. No prizes for guessing though.

The views expressed are personal.