The recently released and long overdue National Health Policy is a welcome move for Indian citizens as the policy aims to ensure health for all by 2030. The increase in healthcare expenditure to 2.5 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) from the current 1.3 per cent will provide some relief to the vast population of our country, even though it may not be enough and falls far short of the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommended minimum 5 per cent spend.
It is, indeed, heartening to hear that improving public health is high on the government's agenda. However, looking at the magnitude of India's health challenges, it is certain that the government cannot achieve this ambitious target all by itself. The private sector that carries the majority of India's health burden, and global companies who partner with both government and private sectors will continue to be essential pillars if India is to achieve far-reaching impact for improved access, awareness and affordability of medical treatment.
For decades, private enterprises have toiled hard to create enabling technologies, which form the backbone of healthcare infrastructure. The medical technology (or medtech) sector has been at the forefront for bringing innovations to India from across the globe and has contributed to saving and improving the quality of life when it comes to certain medical conditions. There is hardly any aspect of healthcare that remains untouched by the medtech sector - ranging from innovation, R&D, diagnostics and clinical evidence to record keeping, tracking and many more. But today I would like to touch upon the unsung role of the medtech sector in building capacity, and training and educating healthcare practitioners on technology adoption for better patient outcomes.
At the outset, it is important to understand that the availability of qualified and skilled medical professionals in India, especially for complex and intricate medical conditions, is highly inadequate. As per government data, for every 10,000 citizens, India has only seven doctors, 17 nurses/midwives, one dentist and five pharmaceutical personnel. These numbers are far lower compared to the WHO benchmark of 25 doctors and nurses per 10,000. As for conditions that require specialised and critical care such as cardiac problems, joint replacement and neurosurgery, the situation is even worse and reflects the forbidding fragility of the Indian healthcare system.
Global medtech companies have not only been instrumental in bringing cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technologies that have contributed to improved treatment outcomes, but have also been at the helm of training and skilling medical practitioners on a variety of procedures and therapies. In the ever-changing world of technology, continuous training is important to keep medical practitioners updated. The contribution of the medtech sector in this area cannot be denied. Over the years, global companies have invested efforts and millions of dollars in keeping healthcare professionals abreast with technology upgrades.
If one is to compare the medical profession with the aviation industry, it becomes obvious that an error caused by lack of training will lead to injury or even death. Therefore, the need for well-trained staff becomes paramount. Several hours are spent in training and certifying pilots before they are allowed to operate high-tech equipment independently. If the technology changes, the pilots are subjected to re-certification and advanced training so that they are adept at handling newer, better technologies. Similarly, surgeons need to train all the time to remain up to date with the latest advancements in the medical field. In both cases, in the absence of proper and regular training, outcomes can be devastating, putting human life at risk. In the ever-changing world of technology, the medical fraternity is invariably learning to hone their skills and knowledge, and the medtech sector is constantly supporting this endeavour to eliminate the risk of error.
Let us consider a joint replacement surgery, a commonly performed procedure in India. Interestingly, this technology and the procedure itself have evolved over the years. With the use of latest technology, the procedure can be less invasive, safer, less painful, more precise and more effective. This has been made possible by new technologies and techniques such as computer-assisted navigation surgery or the use of customised patient jigs or robots. The medtech sector partners with healthcare practitioners to introduce new techniques, and invests efforts and resources to train surgeons on these new technologies.
It is much like the aircraft manufacturers who take it upon themselves to train pilots on their latest equipment. The impact of technology is evident from the fact that a knee replacement patient is potentially mobilised and starts bearing weight on the operated knee within hours of the procedure compared with what was required earlier - weeks of strict bed rest and medical supervision, coupled with strong painkillers. Therefore, the power and the value of the medtech sector in reducing the burden of disease cannot be undermined and is essential for continuous improvements.
The role of the medtech companies does not cease after making the technology available or training the surgeons. Being the product experts, their representatives play a vital role in assisting surgeons and paramedical staff. Companies not only train doctors, but also invest in educating their staff with product and procedural knowledge so that they are proficient in assisting surgeries. These representatives make available devices and instrumentation as required and also make sure that the operation theatre (OT) technicians know precisely when, how and which instruments and components are to be used during a surgery. They speed up procedures, making time for more. While it is the responsibility of the surgeon to ensure that the patient receives the most appropriate treatment, device companies inform the surgeons on the design and the mechanics of the implants and instrumentation.
Countless man-hours are invested by medtech engineers, scientists and researchers to develop a new technology and surgeons invest years to master procedures as this is a long learning curve. Medtech companies, through their continuous training and education initiatives, support and assist surgeons through this learning curve.
Research and development, training and education in medtech space not only involve high costs but also require constant investment of talent and other resources. For the value this sector delivers, price control measures will serve as a deterrent to patient benefit and outcomes. Patients in India deserve the best, including high-end, cutting-edge technology solutions and constant improvement of surgical skills. Medical technology innovations and education drive better outcomes. So measures such as price control may sow the seeds of doubt and risk among the global companies, and hinder patients in India from accessing the best that they deserve.
Mohit Malhotra is Managing Director at Stryker India.