Jasmeet Singh quietly stares at a piece of farm land in Punjab’s Amritsar district he once owned. He was forced to sell the land to pay for his father’s cancer treatment at a private hospital in Delhi after a brief period at a local government hospital.
Singh didn’t have a choice because the Amritsar hospital’s cancer unit did not have facilities to treat his 64-year-old father. “I decided to take my father to a private charitable hospital in Delhi when I didn’t see any improvement in his health,” said the 43-year-old farmer from Punjab.
Soon after being admitted to the private Delhi hospital, the harsh reality of high medical costs hit him. “I had to pay for everything and medicines were costly. But, I had to save my father and I decided to sell part of my farm land to bear the high cost,” Singh recalled.
Singh is among millions of Indians forced to turn to cripplingly expensive private healthcare because of lack of quality medical services in public institutions across the country.
Healthcare costs have spiralled so much over the past few years, especially for diseases like cancer, they sometimes wipe out entire life savings or even force people to sell their homes.
A new government survey shows that in 2014 more than 70% of illnesses were treated in the private sector including clinics, hospitals and charitable institutions, a four percentage point increase over a 10-year period.
“Private doctors were the most important single source of treatment in both rural and urban sectors,” said the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey of over 3.3 lakh households across India released this week.
The survey also said the number of people visiting private institutions for healthcare was higher in urban areas at 79% than just 72% in rural India.
Many people are turning to private health providers that have mushroomed across the country because of poor infrastructure at often overcrowded government-run hospitals.
Usha Devi, a domestic helper in north Delhi’s Rohini who earns less than Rs 5,000 a month, is one of such person. She has borrowed Rs 10,000 from the homes where she works to pay for gall stone surgery in a private clinic next week
Like many poverty-stricken people in India, her first choice was a local government hospital where treatment would have been free. “I was told the operation can happen only after two months. I decided to get operated in a local clinic next week because of the long waiting,” she said.
Devi may just have made a wise choice. A 33-year-old man from Varanasi died this week because a government-run hospital in Lucknow could not slot his surgery for the next eight months despite getting money from the PMO for a kidney transplant
Vandana Prasad, former member of the National Commission for Child Rights (NCPCR), says people are opting for private healthcare because the government has not invested in providing “reliable” public healthcare. “We spend just one per cent of GDP on health and government policies are promoting profit-oriented unregulated private health providers,” she said.
The NSSO data showed that people opted for private sector even though it cost almost four times as much as treatment in government institutions.
The numbers are telling: In 2014, the average cost of hospital care by a public utility was Rs 6,120 while a private institution cost more than four times as much at Rs 25,850. A decade earlier, the difference between the two was less than three times.
For higher cost treatments like cancer, the average cost in a government hospital was Rs 24,526 compared to Rs 78,050 in the private sector. The cost of treatment for skin infections, respiratory and accidents is between four to 10 time higher in private clinics, the survey showed.
With the cost of treatment more than doubling in the last decade and insurance cover still less than 15%, most people dip into their savings -- 68% of people in rural areas and 75% in urban areas use their saving for treatment.
The survey also shows high healthcare costs are causing indebtedness in rural areas, especially among the poor. “If you see the recent data it is clear that about one-fourth of persons get pushed into poverty because of high out of pocket health expenses,” Prasad said.
Is India doing enough for public health?