Renewing focus on non-communicable diseases during Covid-19

Prathap C Reddy | Updated on August 27, 2020 Published on August 27, 2020

People are seen ignoring their illnesses, medications, and annual health checks in these pandemic times. Patients with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer require sustained care and cannot afford to delay their consultations

A large part of this year has been spent tackling Covid-19 with innovative efforts, energy and resources being invested into it. But as the world remains busy in battling one pandemic, there is another which has been sidelined, that of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

In India, every year, around 300 million people are at a risk of dying from NCDs. The WHO has estimated that more than 60 per cent of the deaths in India are a result of cardiac diseases, respiratory disorders and cancer, and 26 per cent of this 60 per cent is among those who are within the age bracket 30-70 years.

Diabetes, a lifestyle ailment, affects millions of lives every year. With Covid affecting immunity, the incidence of NCDs has increased considerably. Patterns emerging from Covid cases across countries indicate that people with co-morbidities of NCDs have a higher mortality rate than those who do not.

With the various steps taken in the last few months to control the spread of infection though national and state-wide lockdowns, social distancing, restricted mobility and postponement of elective surgeries, access to routine healthcare has been disrupted, leading to a limited supply of essentials such as medicines, and diagnostic equipment.

The increasing burden of Covid has aggravated the vulnerability of people with NCDs as many of them are unable to access the required healthcare services. With over 180 million suffering from chronic and lifestyle ailments, India needs to renew its focus on tackling the same. Since the scale of risk for NCDs is largely based on timing and outcomes, the need of the hour is strong preventive measures, screening and timely diagnosis, particularly, protecting vulnerable groups.

Patients with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer require sustained care and cannot afford to delay their consultations. They need to be monitored regularly and adherence to treatment must be ensured to prevent further worsening of conditions.

Cancer care has received a deadly blow during the current pandemic as statistics from the World Cancer Report 2020 indicates that the burden of cancer will double in the next decade in low- and middle-income countries; nearly one in every 10 Indians is likely to develop cancer at some point in their lives and one in 15 Indians will succumb to the disease.

Social stigma

The prevailing social stigma around Covid coupled with the fear of contracting infections may have made patients rather lax about their health, lifestyle and regular medications. There is an urgent need to bring in a behavioural shift, as people have settled into ignoring their illnesses over the last six months, oblivious to the life-threatening risks these diseases pose.

A majority of the population will skip their annual health check this year, and significant preventive measures which could potentially eliminate the risk of NCD or an early diagnosis that would help in keeping an NCD from causing irreparable damage will now not be possible. In addition to medications, unless diabetics do their tests regularly and exercise, cardiac patients get reviewed, kidney patients get regular dialysis and cancer patients undergo chemotherapy, India will end up losing many more precious citizens to NCDs.

Therefore, it is important that we make it our individual responsibility to ascertain our health status, and across hospitals it has been observed that patients who do not have any co-morbidities have recovered from Covid easily, almost in a fortnight.

Positive change seen

The present crisis situation is gradually seeing a positive change and there is a need to instil greater confidence in the people about the situation in hospitals. As hospitals continue with tele-consultations, they must ensure safety of the premises and communicate that they are safe and ready to care for all other patients as well. Hospital managements should ensure there are comprehensive guidelines for patients, clear signage and designated sections within the hospitals with stringent social distancing and infection free protocols in place.

We are a country of young dynamic people who can build a strong healthcare system in the country through a multi-sectoral, collaborative approach. We must take care that steps are taken to ensure a public health crisis does not lead to a worsening situation for overall disease management. Given that the pandemic is going to be around for some more time, we need a decisive plan to prevent the rising NCD burden and fatalities. There is a need to prioritise screening and diagnosis by increasing surveillance measures. Digital intervention to fully utilise tele-medicine facilities for expanded and faster reach is also the need of the hour.

To purposefully deliver healthcare in a country of more than a billion people, we need to empower the citizens of the country to take charge of their own health and be responsible for their well-being. Finally, I would urge India to bear in mind that most non-communicable diseases can be reversed with lifestyle changes and, therefore, our mantra for happiness must be to be ‘Pro Health’.

The writer is Chairman, Apollo Hospitals, and Past President of NATHEALTH

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Published on August 27, 2020
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