The pandemic has forced almost every country to reassess its healthcare delivery strategy, including India. The need to rein in COVID-19, combined with regular healthcare commitments like large-scale immunisation drives, has put immense stress on the country’s healthcare infrastructure.
Despite its large geography and population size, India had already begun re-strategizing its healthcare delivery systems early on to wade through the crisis as unscathed as possible. Over the past six years, the Indian government has been undertaking aggressive measures towards numerous Sustainable Development Goals, with a special focus on Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being.
Mega-initiatives by the government, such as Ayushman Bharat-PMJAY and National Digital Health Mission (NDHM), have definitely accelerated India’s efforts to achieve SDG target 3.8, which is to “achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to affordable, quality and essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all”.
However, the smooth implementation of various healthcare programmes is sometimes disrupted by several pressing challenges, mostly due to India’s large population. To address these challenges effectively, the UNDP Accelerator Lab in India is working closely with the Central and State governments, private sector, research and technology development organisations, civil society organisations and innovative start-ups that can collectively help the country accelerate the progress in achieving SDGs.
The acute shortage of healthcare workforce, including healthcare practitioners (HCPs), is one of the biggest challenges being faced by India in the current scenario. For any public health policy to become successful, it is crucial that there are enough qualified, licensed healthcare professionals. Overcoming this shortfall is essential as it invariably impacts the implementation of National Health Mission and projects under the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The government’s response to overcome this shortage has been majorly to increase the enrolment of students for medical courses, and to provide training and licenses to community health workers to practice basic medicine. Yet, given other externalities like emigration of HCPs, it is also pertinent to take stock of the total number of HCPs and efficiently utilise the existing workforce to meet healthcare demands in the country.
According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Services, there are 12,55,786 allopathic practitioners registered under the Medical Council of India (now National Medical Commission) and State medical councils. This number is not always accurate because it is very challenging for State medical councils and the Central authorities to regularly cross-verify the number of HCPs that have applied for licenses in another state or have left the country.
While the NDHM will bring in a much-needed integrated healthcare system, it does not address the problem of HCP shortage. India needs a technology-driven system aligned to NDHM which can screen and profile HCPs, check for irregularities and fraudulent activities, build transparency, promote up skilling, and build overall credibility among the Indian healthcare workforce.
Such a system will help the government and its agencies to augment the NDHM to address unmet demands. Complete digitisation of databases and real time updates will bring clarity about the number of healthcare practitioners across different geographies. Additionally, there needs to be a structured focus on understanding the availability of healthcare practitioners, while also providing them a platform to find appropriate and relevant opportunities for work.
Many medical graduates and professionals find it difficult to secure a job with transparent wages, so many of them move to larger cities with the hope of a better paying job and other opportunities. This leads to a dearth of timely access to medical practitioners, further adding to the lack of affordable access to quality healthcare services.
A few technological platforms are now looking to bridge this gap and efficiently manage the supply chain. A Bangalore-based start-up, MedPiper Technologies, is helping doctors discover opportunities with transparent wages and is concurrently creating a database of healthcare professionals in India. It addresses the need gap with regards to delivery of vacancies in smaller towns and cities, which in some cases pays the doctors higher wages when compared to remunerations in larger cities, thereby triggering a shift in paradigm. Moreover, it also allows hospitals to hire verified practitioners faster, than through other conventional channels.
While Medpiper is currently active in Southern India, it showcases the importance of effectively managing the existing number of doctors and healthcare workers to meet healthcare demands across the country. Such innovative business models need to scale up nationally so that the country can aptly meet the demand for qualified medical professionals, especially in challenging times like the current pandemic.
These technologies are not limited to only doctors. In due course of time, they can be expanded to encompass the entire frontline workforce, including nurses, paramedics, lab technicians, administrators, and so play an instrumental ally to the Government’s vision of making quality healthcare from qualified professionals accessible to all people.