Towards establishing health equity

The confluence of recent events is an opportunity to rethink health systems. The new Medical Council of India, the proposed Human Resources in Health Bill, the penultimate year of the National Rural Health Mission, preparations for the 12th Five Year Plan and the promise of a significant increase in the health budget mandate such reappraisal. The poor indices of health and inequity related to class, caste and gender underscore the urgency of the situation. While diverse aspects (financing, personnel, infrastructure, drugs, governance and empowerment of communities) need to be addressed, this article focusses on medical training and practice.

Issues in training

The philosophy, nature and quality of training determine the range and value of health care services provided. The current mismatch between training imparted and skills and competencies required for practice mandates review.

Primary versus tertiary standards: Current training of medical professionals is entirely based in medical college and tertiary care facilities. Such institutions, being at top of the referral chain, serve only a small proportion of the population. They manage complex disorders using sophisticated medical technology. Doctors produced by such a system find themselves at sea when asked to serve in primary and secondary care hospitals, which manage the bulk of patients with milder, acute and common health problems, using clinical skills and low-tech approaches. The battle to provide relevant and quality health care to the general population is lost by locating medical education in specialist facilities.

Local concerns versus international focus: International traditions of modern medicine have focussed on universal conditions to the near-complete exclusion of locally relevant diseases. They also emphasise expensive technological solutions, which are out of the reach of average Indians. Physicians are more at ease prescribing low cholesterol diets for heart disease than locally appropriate food for malnutrition. Pharmaceutical and tertiary hospital industries, which cater to the richer classes, drive medical concerns.

Knowledge versus skill and competencies: Much of the training of physicians involves the transmission of knowledge. The near complete absence of skills and competencies required for practice makes most medical graduates opt for further specialist training. Today's new doctors, with major deficiencies in diagnostic and management skills, would rather apply for post-graduate courses than engage in practice. Yet, competency-based medical curricula seem light years away.

Family practice versus specialist training: The tertiary care formatting of medical knowledge and training have resulted in a syllabus based on medical disciplines rather than a curriculum with a focus on common clinical presentations and problems. Such divisions encourage specialist perspectives rather than support training concerns related to broad-based generalist education. The rarity of family and general practice departments and training, the cornerstone of good medical practice, disempowers physicians, forcing them to specialise.

Critical thinking: The Indian education system does not promote critical thought. Unquestioned acceptance of received wisdom is the norm. The acknowledgment of its inappropriateness and lack of relevance in many Indian contexts is rare. Attempts to understand the problems of practice, so crucial to the provision of holistic care, do not merit attention. The need to inculcate critical thinking among physicians, who constantly have to re-read original texts and theories, identify their limitations in clinical practice and alter received wisdom, is never encouraged.

Issues related to practice

The nature of practice and its determinants play a significant role in shaping health care delivery systems.

Universal and contextual knowledge: The dominance of medical theory, considered universal and authentic, over clinical practice, deemed trivial and less valid, makes for the dismissal of patients' concerns and context and delegitimises physicians' conflicts. Illness is confused with disease and the patient's demand for healing is misconstrued in the physician's pursuit of cures. The imperfections of practice, based on the original theories, are dismissed as problems of application and translation. Modern medicine, with its current market-driven logic, precludes working with the patient's circumstances, family, environment, culture, community and politics. Context-driven practice needs to influence, modify and change medical theory in order to deliver holistic care. These issues need to be researched and be part of pedagogy in India.

Horizontal versus vertical programmes: Many governmental health initiatives function as vertical programmes (eg HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, etc.) with their own specific logic, goals, organisation, personnel and practice. International funding agencies also prefer such divisions, as financial inputs are easier to monitor and their impact simpler to evaluate. However, these approaches preclude horizontal integration of expertise and services required for general and family practice in primary care settings. Good integrated primary care services, so necessary for optimal health care delivery, remain fragmented and reflect the conflicts and contradictions of tertiary care formatting of medical knowledge.

Public health approaches or curative medicine: It is widely acknowledged that compared to curative medical strategies, public health approaches, which target the social determinants of health, have a much greater influence on health and longevity of populations. Nevertheless, clean water, sanitation, nutrition, housing, education and employment receive much less importance, with curative medical approaches continually hogging the limelight. Education, in general, has a greater impact on health than specifically targeted health education.

Private investment or public funding: The success of capitalism has increased the demand for private investment solutions for problems in health care delivery. Nevertheless, the unequal doctor-patient relationship with regard to medical information is fertile ground for exploitation. In addition, private capital needs to maximise profits and selectively targets diseases and services that are lucrative rather than focus on the needs of the population. While private partnerships bring in efficiency, the absence of a regulatory framework implies that meaningful health care for populations is usually sacrificed at the altar of economics. This is also true of private initiatives in medical education with their exorbitant fee structures and variable standards in education.

Indigenous research and technology: Current medical approaches employ western technology and their monopolistic pricing policies result in health care that is out of the reach of average Indians. There is a need to focus and fund indigenous research, which is locally relevant and appropriate to the Indian context. The Jaipur foot is one such example.

Universal care versus coverage: The capitalist mantra prefers universal health coverage to universal health care, with a substantial provision of services by private providers. Many States have introduced health insurance to cover for life-saving medical conditions. The unregulated and high-cost private sector provides care for low-frequency diseases in tertiary facilities, without a gate-keeping role for primary care. The absence of cover for common conditions makes the impact of such schemes marginal for the majority of the population. The consequent neglect of public hospitals also demands caution in bringing private players to manage national health care delivery.

Moving forward

Inequities in health demand critical reflection on the medical culture and clinical practice in India. Tinkering superficially with medical curricula, administrative structures and health delivery systems falls far short of any meaningful and relevant change. The challenge is to acknowledge the inappropriateness of the current health education and delivery systems to the Indian context, and to refashion health care delivery relevant for the country.

The emphasis of medical training, clinical practice and funding should be on primary health care. While physicians can specialise, their basic training should make them competent for medical practice in primary and secondary hospital settings. Medical practice should be relevant and contextual.

The gross inequity in health argues for universal health care as a democratic priority. The Pratichi Trust highlighted the inadequacy of public debate, poor media coverage and limited space in the legislative agenda for health, at the Dr. Chandrakant Patil Memorial Eastern India Regional Health Assembly, recently held at Kolkata. The Trust emphasised the fact that social determinants of health (clean water, sanitation, etc.) find no place in the public discourse. The conference also stressed the bidirectional relationship between economic development and health, which justifies much greater financial input to improve the health of populations. Media interventions to increase awareness and demand, support collective engagement and argue for health as a human right with legal entitlements, will increase the democratic pressure on governments to operationalise equitable health care. Health equity should be part of all policies — financial, developmental, environmental, educational, etc. All discussions should prioritise values rather than project practicalities. There is a need to foreground health in the public discourse. The struggle for health equity is more than a fight for democracy; it is about the definition of justice.

(Professor K.S. Jacob is on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore. This article is based on his presentation at the Dr. Chandrakant Patil Memorial Eastern India Regional Health Assembly, Kolkata.)

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 9:44:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/towards-establishing-health-equity/article2227434.ece

Next Story