India’s Failing Healthcare System — Treatment for All?

Medical tourism in India has bloomed in the past decade. India has become a favored destination for “medical tourists” who cross national boundaries to avail medical services at cheaper costs than their host countries. The medical tourism industry is heavily invested in and promoted by government. It is a multi-million dollar industry whose demand is growing daily with the increase in medical costs in the developed world. India has become a hub for medical tourism since it provides medical and health services of first world quality at third world prices.

Government policies have aided the rapid growth of this industry. The neo-liberal reforms of 1991 led to surge in investments in the medical sector. The privatization of the medical sector led to an increasingly capitalistic mindset of the functioning of the medical sector. The profiteering nature of the new corporate healthcare led to health being viewed just as a product. Investment in the health sector was seen as a route to economic development and the medical sector was  thus capitalized. There were significant cutbacks in public health investment. This led to the further deterioration of services offered at public health care units.

Healthcare in India is marked by the principle of exclusivity. The penetration of private hospitals has further diluted the public health system. Traditionally, there has always been insufficient budget allocation to the health sector. The facilities provided by the public health care units are lacking. The principle of equity has been lost and forgotten with the privatization of the health sector. Private hospitals are characterized by high costs and better treatment facilities as compared to the government hospitals. A large number of population cannot afford going to these hospitals even though the treatments are better than the public hospitals. Still, the poor of the country prefer the private hospitals even on the verge of bankruptcy since they provide better services.

Medical tourism became an instrument in the process of market expansion and economic development. In 2003, the medical sector and tourism industry were combined by the government policy to boost our GDP. The government’s vision was to promote medical tourism and make India the international destination for all medical and health related facilities. The dependence on the public health sector by majority of the population was ignored and instead the glamorization of health facilities was promoted. Since then the divide between India as a world class health service provider and India as a primary health provider has only sharpened.

This mirage of medical tourism having any potential to help the deteriorating state of public health sector has been called out. There is no compensation from the medical tourism industry to the healthcare sector in India and the public sectors bears the brunt of it. The shift of government subsidies from the public sector to the private sector has led to low inputs in the public health sector. With no responsibility as such undertaken by the corporate health sector, the marginalized classes can’t afford the facilities, and this has divided the Indian population into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

The flagship healthcare policy “Modicare” disclosed in the 2018 budget is seen as an attempt by the government to bridge this disparity and make quality healthcare accessible to all. Yet, the miniscule increase in the healthcare budget proves otherwise. On paper the policy seems like a huge step forward to correct our ailing public healthcare system, but it’s implementation is a question that everyone is concerned with. Plus, there has been no talk about the miscreations of the private sector with their blatant disregard of the rules, such as that of treating a poor patient for free. The focus of the government to pull out of the public works makes questions the inherently welfare-oriented approach of the Indian state.

There are many flaws in the way the medical tourism industry functions in our country. The extra revenues earned by the this industry with the aid of the subsidies provided has not helped improve the public healthcare system as it is not adequately taxed. In this context, Cuba can be seen as a pioneer in the medical tourism industry, as the medical tourists pay for the medical facilities and it’s citizens have access to free healthcare. Both of the services are provided by the government.The Indian government needs to recognize the underlying implications of a flourishing medical tourism and a crumbing public healthcare sector. With a large number of population under poverty, it is high time that the government as a welfare state correct this situation by investing more into the public healthcare system and allocating more funds from the budget to it.

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