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Wealthy India, unhealthy Indians

Healthcare needs have not been adequately addressed, says Dr Prathap C. Reddy of Apollo Hospitals.

N. Madhavan        Print Edition: March 20, 2011

Billion Hearts Beating - The heart of India is in our hands." That is the banner greeting visitors at Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd, Chennai. Inside the hospital are hundreds of small, heart-shaped posters giving the seven common causes of heart attacks. The campaign is also the screensaver on Executive Chairman Dr Prathap C. Reddy's desktop. "By 2015, India will be home to twothirds of the world's heart diseases and 62.5 million people will be affected," he says. "Billion Hearts Beating is our corporate social responsibility campaign to create awareness on what people should do to avoid a heart condition,'' adds Dr Reddy, while settling down to watch Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's speech in his compact corner office, a large colourful laughing Buddha giving him company. In a while, he is joined by daughters Preetha, Managing Director of the hospital chain, and Suneeta, Executive Director, Finance, and some senior officials.

The first 30 minutes of the speech are heard in rapt attention with almost everyone studiously taking notes. The emphasis on agriculture and measures to tackle food inflation are steps in the right direction, acknowledges Dr Reddy. The measure to ensure greater transparency in delivery of subsidies through direct transfer is also welcomed.

 
Dr Prathap C. Reddy of Apollo Hospitals
Dr Prathap C. Reddy of Apollo Hospitals

The government has neither realised the serious healthcare crisis in the country, nor the potential the industry offers
But soon, there is a sense of unease. Mukherjee is 45 minutes into his speech, but there is little mention of the healthcare sector, except a 20 per cent increase in allocation. "The health minister is there. Hope he is expecting something," remarks Dr Reddy, hiding his frustration. Expectations rise as the fertiliser industry is conferred infrastructure status. The healthcare sector has been seeking similar status for long. As the FM moves onto tax proposals, the hope gives way to disappointment.

"It is time the government recognises the challenges faced by the country on the healthcare front. We can't have a wealthy India with unhealthy people," says Dr Reddy. "There is a huge demandsupply gap. We have one bed for 1,000 people, compared to western countries where the ratio is 1:250. There is a desperate need to add 1 lakh beds every year for the next 10 years to meet the surging demand and this calls for an annual investment of Rs 30,000 crore," he explains. Infrastructure status, the industry argues, is necessary to raise such large funds.

"In four years, the total number of cardiac cases in India will go up to 62.6 million which our healthcare infrastructure cannot cope with. Today, we have 0.7 million doctors against the requirement of 1.5 million. We need to triple the headcount of nurses and quadruple the number of paramedics," says Dr Reddy.

A World Health Organization study has estimated that India could lose $237 billion in national income on account of chronic non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease in the next decade. "To meet these challenges, we need many times more than a mere 20 per cent increase in allocation. Other BRIC countries spend two to three per cent of their GDP on health care," Dr Reddy argues.

The government has neither realised the serious healthcare crisis in the country, nor the potential the industry offers, he says, adding, "India's healthcare sector has the potential to add two to three per cent to the GDP," he adds.

Disappointment gives way to despair as the FM announces imposition of service tax on all facilities, including health check-ups and diagnostic services in private hospitals that have more than 25 beds and are centrally air-conditioned. "Air conditioning is not a luxury in a hospital. It is for controlling infection. The message this measure will send is build hospitals without air conditioning," says Dr Reddy. "Hospitals will now try putting up individual room ACs but that is not an energy-efficient move," chips in Preetha.

"At a time when we are educating people to undergo preventive healthcare tests and identify problems early, such taxes defeat their very purpose," he says. Dr Reddy's disappointment is understandable. One of the most important aspects of the 'Billion Heart Beating' campaign is tests that identify heart ailments early. This is because one-fourth of cardiac patients in India are in the below-40-year bracket.

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