The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) has received a critical impetus by the appointment of renowned cardiologist Dr Srinath Reddy from AIIMS as president, and the induction of Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia and the PM’s Principal Secretary, T.K.A. Nair, as its members. The primary purpose of the foundation, chaired by former McKinsey head Rajat Gupta, is to set up public health administration institutes — seemingly prosaic, but in the context of the public health challenges in the country, a major undertaking. The PHFI is a public-private initiative, gathering as it does the best minds in the business of management, economics and health. Expectations are that it will be a touchstone of sorts to encourage the emergence of private-public health enterprises, apart from being the engine of the National Rural Health Mission. The foundation, starting with a one-time State grant of Rs 65 crore as corpus, plans to set up regional institutes and faculty development programmes. Its reach is expected to be across India.
This is good news since India’s public health infrastructure and management is abysmal. The ability of cities to manage epidemics is woeful. Government dispensaries and hospitals are, simply put, shoddy and unable to cope with any but the simplest of public health challenges. Periodic reports of strange fevers ‘breaking out’ in small towns and villages have nothing mysterious about them — just the realisation that there exists no infrastructure or manpower to collect the data, isolate the root cause and prevent its recurrence. The PHFI has rightly measured that beyond the brick and mortar system, it is high-class training of personnel that is imperative. All efforts will come to nought if the trained individuals continue to consider work in the rural sector as punishment postings. That said, the health board has its task cut out.
The board will find more storms than smooth sailing in the next few years. Management excellence can optimise system efficiency. That’s the easier part of the job. The challenge will be manifold in infusing into India’s health practices a sense of empathy and a value for life. That eventually is what will form the bedrock for a healthy nation.