Bridging ‘health gap’

Anand Narasimhan | Updated on April 06, 2021

The widening demand-supply is fuelling it

Indians have never been more informed about their health and wellbeing. Factors ranging from technology — Web apps and wearables — are driving awareness and consideration of diet, exercise, even, mental wellbeing.

Today, over 50 per cent Indian women recognise that exercise and yoga are beneficial in controlling diabetes, while 60 per cent are aware the link with pregnancy; nearly half (44 per cent) are even cognizant of ‘Prediabetes’.

Majority of Indians consider their health ‘acceptable’ or ‘excellent’ (70 per cent) and describe themselves as balanced eaters (69 per cent). Interest in their diets is particularly prevalent amongst India’s younger generation; almost half of Gen Z'ers (aged between 18 and 25) and a third of millennials would be prepared to pay a premium for ‘healthy’ food.

Such trends reveal a growing level of awareness — and concern — about all aspects of personal health in India. It also reflects a corresponding shift in what people expect from healthcare providers.

Today’s Indians are aware and informed about a range of health conditions; not just in terms of prevention, but potential remedy and support. This heightened consciousness is translating into unprecedented levels of demand for healthcare services. A second factor, is the reality of modern life; Indians are more sedentary than ever. According to research from GNC, 44 per cent Indians ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ exercise, a similar proportion describe themselves as ‘erratic’ or ‘negligent’ eaters. According to other research, a third of Indian employees suffer from anxiety and other mental health issues at work; a situation certain to be exacerbated by the pandemic.

So the unprecedented levels of awareness compounded by lifestyle realities have contributed to rising incidence of non-communicable health conditions, and greater demand for organised healthcare services.

So the current health system is unable to keep up. The country’s health sector is expected to record a CAGR of 16 per cent for the period 2008-2022; significantly short of the 30 per cent growth (for Ischemic heart disease) and 26 per cent (for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) indicated for the same period.

This is the essence of India’s ‘health gap’. While demand for health services is increasing at an exponential rate, supply is growing at a purely linear rate.

The reasons for this divergence are many and varied. India’s bed density of 0.9 (per 1,000 citizens) is lower than that of all our peer nations.

Though India has the largest number of medical colleges globally (381) and produces the highest number of medical graduates (50,000) each year, there still exists a huge gap in the supply of physicians, nurses and paramedical staff.

Despite the steady increase in health insurance coverage and the launch of Ayushman Bharat, there is still a lot to be done. Current health protocols (the rate at which general practitioners refer patients to specialists, for instance is much higher than in comparable countries) also contribute to this gap.

But there are signs (and hope) of change. Regulatory frameworks, technology (particularly the Internet of Things-based devices for monitoring and managing and managing conditions), professional career paths, and alternative sources of funding are all combining to bridge the delta.

It’s more important to ‘bend the curve’ of healthcare supply to meet corresponding demand than ever before.

The writer is MD, Merck Specialties.

Published on April 06, 2021

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