Union Budget 2021 Expectations: The budget could pave the way for a more robust healthcare ecosystem in the COVID world

Updated: January 27, 2021 3:41 PM

Union Budget 2021 Expectations for healthcare: The calamitous impact of the pandemic brought to fore the need to treat the healthcare sector as a priority and to invest in improving the country’s healthcare systems.

healthcare budget 2021-22 expectations, union budget 2021 expectations for healthcareOver 60% of India’s population is under the age of 35 years yet the disease burden remains acute.

By Sigal Atzmon

Budget 2021: As India embarks on one of the world’s largest vaccination programs, it is clear that 2021 will be a defining year for India’s healthcare industry. While India fared better than even some of most advanced countries in the world in its response to COVID-19, the pandemic pushed the public healthcare system in India to its limits, baring gaps and challenges of accessibility across the healthcare landscape.. Despite the brave fight put up by the nation’s healthcare providers, at the peak of the pandemic, the system was largely overwhelmed and unfortunately, lives were lost. The calamitous impact of the pandemic brought to fore the need to treat the healthcare sector as a priority and to invest in improving the country’s healthcare systems, introducing innovative care models and making it more accessible and affordable.

Since even before the pandemic, a high death rate from NCDs has been prevalent in India and we are seeing a rise in cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and other diseases that in many cases, can be prevented. Yet India’s spending towards improving its healthcare sector and associated industries has remained consistently too low. At present, India spends just 1.3 per cent of its GDP on healthcare and a large part of this goes towards improving the already burdened pubic healthcare systems. For years, experts and committees have sought for an increment in the funds allocated toward the sector to at least 2 per cent of the GDP which has now been revised to 2.5-3% by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Even when compared to other countries in BRICS and OECD, India’s spending on healthcare is among the lowest. This has to change.

Addressing affordable accessibility:

Access to affordable healthcare and preventative care has become a priority. The surge in people signing up for insurance is a clear indication clear indication of the trend. Despite the increased interest in health insurance however, the health insurance penetration is at just 4%. All stakeholders in the healthcare industry, led by the government, need to work together and apply a shared value approach to ensure accessibility (quality driven) and sustainability (affordability) of the healthcare eco-system. Insurance products must provide tools to all customer segments to manage their health better. It is imperative to develop and launch innovative services that will strike a balance of improving accessibility and medical outcomes, while at the same time help to lower out of pocket costs and reduce medical cost inflation.

According to estimates, out of pocket expenses in healthcare in India hover close to 62%, nearly thrice the global average of 18%. The out of pocket expense burden could be reduced significantly by improving health insurance penetration and with funds sets aside for covering more number of treatments under insurance. Encouraging home healthcare services would also ease the burden on the strained hospital infrastructure.

Focus on Prevention & Early Detection Service:

Over 60% of India’s population is under the age of 35 years yet the disease burden remains acute.

The mortality rates in India could be significantly reduced if preventive health check-ups and early-detection were prioritised. Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes and heart-related diseases are easily manageable if diagnosed early.

With better access to health care and affordability people will get less sick and can be treated more easily to successfully manage the risk and survive the disease when required. The government should consider allocating more funds towards preventive healthcare and awareness programs.

Impetus to digitisation

The pandemic has had a terrible impact on human life and economies worldwide, but it also presents a significant opportunity to re-examine the healthcare landscape, of how healthcare is provided and consumed.

At the onset of the pandemic, between travel restrictions, overburdened healthcare systems and people simply afraid of going to see their doctor, patients in India and across the globe were delaying or unable to access tests and treatments which was detrimental to their health. At the other end of the spectrum, due the shortage of quality healthcare facilities and practitioners in smaller cities, towns and villages patients from all over the country who would usually travel to major cities, incurring many additional expenses for quality medical care, were also stranded. The full impact was mitigated largely due to the surge in adoption of online consultations and digital health solutions by medical establishments. This effectively laid the groundwork for a patient-centric healthcare system in a COVID world.

People now want access to affordable, remote and digitally enhanced care from the comfort and safety of their home. They don’t want to go and sit in a hospital or a clinic anymore. The pandemic has further accelerated this model of on-demand, remote care through digital health solutions, replacing the practice of face to face consultations.

Digital health solutions can transform the way India manages its healthcare delivery systems. The government’s National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) initiative is a step in the right direction for creating an integrated healthcare ecosystem which is both affordable and inclusive. It will allow for a seamless patient experience and create opportunities for public-private partnerships and industry wide collaborations. The union budget is an opportunity for the policy makers to clearly outline the way forward for a digitally enabled health ecosystem and their plans to make it scalable.

The year gone by has set the stage for digital transformation of the healthcare system. The government must now build on the progress made by reiterating its push towards digitisation by committing funds for the healthcare sector. Given the complexities of the Indian market, insurers too will need to look very closely at product design to ensure relevancy and also affordability. The only way to have a sustainable healthcare landscape is through alignment of efforts and interests between payers, providers and regulators to ensure that patients from any part of the country can receive the care that they deserve.

(The author is Founder & CEO, Medix Global. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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