Currently, India spends about $20 per person per year on healthcare and spending more once seemed like a peripheral concern, taking a back seat to basics like food and sanitation. However, in the past decade, as the Indian economy has grown and wealth followed, Indians are increasingly demanding access to “high quality” healthcare. But what does “high quality” mean for a country where a large proportion of the population still goes hungry? Where access to sanitation is so spotty that the Supreme Court recently had to decree that every school should have a toilet? What is “high quality” in a setting where so many basics have not been met?
It turns out that “high quality” may mean quite a lot, especially for the poor. A few weeks ago I spent time in Delhi, meeting with the leadership of the Indian health ministry. I talked to directors of new public medical schools and hospitals opening up around the country and I met with clinicians and healthcare administrators at both private and public hospitals. An agenda focused on quality rang true with them in a way that surprised me.
The broad consensus among global health policy experts is that countries like India should focus on improving “access” to healthcare while high income countries can afford to focus on the “quality” of that care. The argument goes that when the population doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, you don’t have the luxury to focus on quality. This distinction between access and quality never made sense to me. When I was a kid in Madhubani, a small town in in the poor state of Bihar, I remember the widespread impressions of our community hospital. It was a state-run institution that my uncle, a physician, once described as a place where “you dare not go, because no one comes out alive”.