Ayushman Bharat for a New India

There is undoubtedly a clear argument for Universal healthcare. The question still looming large is “How do we get there”

Angus Deaton, a well renowned economist, explains that while there is a correlation between higher income and better life expectancy, this is not the only factor. There are means to ensure great health at less cost and equally spending large sum with no purpose, America being one case in point. While earlier any spending on healthcare was dubbed as social overhead, it is no longer so – there is enough evidence to prove that spending on healthcare speeds growth of the nation.
Today, the National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) has been credited as the world’s largest health insurance plan. The plan aims to provide a health insurance cover of up to Rs 5 Lakh annually to 10 crore families, which would in turn cover 40 percent of country’s population. RSBY, the earlier predecessor of Ayushman Bharat was able to reach 3.6 Crore families over a 10-year timeframe against a targeted coverage of 6 Cr families, let’s say 60% success rate in 10 years. Undoubtedly, the scheme is very well intentioned and fundamentally ambitious which is the need of the hour. The scheme, however, currently seems to address only one of the three pillars – Affordability for healthcare services; two other pillars access and quality remain unanswered!


India has around 1.6 million hospital beds and around 55,000 hospitals (excluding community health centres and primary health centres). The infrastructure is woefully inadequate to cater to the healthcare needs of the country. In addition, there is a large variation across states. While states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have ~1000 people served by one government hospital, states like Bihar and Assam have more than 5000 people being served by a government hospital. Given this, how do we deliver care to the population remains a question. The gaps are even more pronounced across Tier-1/2/3/4 towns. However, the opportunity also presents solutions;
The government needs to smartly build capacity as utilization increases and also increase capacity utilization of existing Primary Health Centres (PHCs) and Community Health Centres (CHCs). However, there is a lot of ground to be covered; the current efforts are still geared towards building a registry of hospitals in Rohini (Registry of Hospitals in Network of Insurance) which finally claims to have ~33,000 unique hospitals.
Good primary care is an essential precondition for a healthy nation. And rightly so, Ayushman Bharat also proposes setting up of 1.5 lakh health and wellness centres across the country. These centres would provide comprehensive healthcare, maternal and child care, disease screening, free drugs and diagnostics to the poor. A meticulous implementation and robust healthcare delivery in these centres could reduce the need for secondary and tertiary care. Addressing problems associated with supply logistics and spurious medication is another challenge. There could be an opportunity to tie up with players involved in last mile logistics to tackle some of these challenges.
Finally, a large question that looms over is the participation from private sector. Can the government assure enough incentives to the private sector which already faces problems of receivable and collection from other government insurance schemes? Given that government hospitals have 0.5 beds per 1000 people, non-participation or even limited participation from private sector could adversely impact implementation.

Our country has around 1 million doctors. While states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have 1.5 doctors per 1000 population, states like Bihar and Assam have less than 0.5 doctors per 1000 population. Apart from Physicians, contractual staff accounts for more than half of skilled workforce in the country. 
Manpower optimization practices; creation of skilled manpower including nurses, technicians and other support staff through short term training courses could increase resource efficiency for doctors. Healthcare Sector Skill Council (HSSC) had already taken this initiative. However, it requires participation from some private players to jointly build the ecosystem. Certain practices such as midwifery which have been quite successful as isolated examples, need planning and mass implementation.
There are also sporadic examples and learnings from other countries. For instance, Costa Rica established integrated primary healthcare teams each looking after 5000 people. The team included paramedics to visit patients, an executive who maintains records, a nurse, pharmacist and finally a doctor. Ethiopia has a concept of health extension workers who are rural high school graduates undergoing one-year training before they are sent back to their native areas. These health extension workers have played a key role in reducing the child and maternal mortality by 32% and 38% respectively. In a review of studies conducted across some countries in Africa, it was found that clinical officers with three years of training performed Caesarean Sections as safely as doctors. In Thailand, there are incentives in place for doctors who work in rural areas. Inculcating some of these best practices should bring in much more efficiencies in the current system.

In India, the average length of doctor consultation is little more than 2 minutes and features a single question – “What’s wrong with you?”. Not surprisingly, research done by World Bank has shown that only 30% of the consultations have resulted in correct diagnosis. Citing another example, in India, around half a million children die of diarrhoeal diseases every year. In this context, a research done by the World bank around Diarrhoea in Delhi showed that only 25% of the providers ask parents whether there was blood or mucous in the child’s stool, which is the definitive symptom of the disease. Some of these are fundamental corrections needed in the healthcare quality today. 
We have seldom talked about quality standards in existing public or private hospitals. A glance in the corridor of some of the best public hospitals across the country could send shivers down the spine. Is quality the least concern? While we have quality standards drafted by bodies such as NABH (National Accreditation Board for
Hospitals), compliance is altogether a different subject. In addition, less than one percent of hospitals have NABH accreditation.
Sometime back, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launched an initiative Mera Aspataal (My Hospital) an app-based platform to enable patients share real time feedback on hospitals. The app has seen a meagre 5000 downloads and numerous complaints of inability to share feedback or non-actioned feedback. In addition, the website has numerous challenges right from accepting a mobile number for registration.
A large-scale quality and patient experience audit followed by implementation of drastic interventions is required to drive overall quality. There must be a commitment to deliver quality healthcare and not just on paper. Quality needs to be defined on multiple parameters and incentives need to be created around these quality standards. India would need standardized survey instrument and data collection methodologies to measure patients’ perspectives of hospital care. Hospitals providing quality as reflected in standardized patient scores need to be both recognized and incentivized appropriately. Practices such as HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) in the United States need to be studied and some best practises need to be suitably adapted to the Indian Context.

In order to drive healthcare consumption and changes in health seeking behaviour of the population, there is a need to educate the consumer. More importantly, the government needs to take a lead in facilitating patient education around insurance. This would also include educating them on seeking healthcare from the right set of institutions. The move would be much easier than educating informal physicians on right diagnosis and treatment. The government should take the lead in facilitating public health; focusing on awareness and education. Pulse polio campaign which witnessed a resounding success in India, needs to be created for Non-Communicable diseases in the country.
Increased penetration of both feature phones and smart phones could be another opportunity. In Kenya, for example, M-Tiba is a dedicated health account on cell phone that allows anyone to send, save and spend funds for medical treatment. In addition, it uses internationally recognized ‘safe care’ standards to monitor quality of care at approved facilities.

The concept of Universal healthcare is not something new and has been embraced by quite a few countries across the globe while being a work in progress for others. In addition, it has helped them achieve desired results. Look at Rwanda, a small African country as an example, its GDP per person is only $750 but its healthcare scheme covers 90% of the population and infant mortality has halved in a decade.
The fulcrum of change is Niti Aayog and almost everyone in healthcare industry is keen to associate themselves with the program execution along with Niti Aayog; right from medical device and pharma firms, health tech platforms and consulting firms,
however what the program needs is a clear thinking and internally designed implementation roadmap.
Ayushman Bharat, undoubtedly, could be a game changer in the Indian context if planned meticulously and implemented well. Amitabh Kant, Niti Aayog CEO, expects around 50% of the families to receive coverage in the first year. As per him. “the challenge is not resources for the scheme, but challenge is its implementation”. The goal of Universal Healthcare is certainly achievable and affordable by the government; it needs a thinking on how to optimally use scarce resources!


The healthcare SIG  is planning a panel discussion and networking event at Equinox on this theme. Please reach ritesh_dogra2009@pgp.isb.edu if you wish to collaborate for the same.

On Death and Money – History, Facts and Explanations – Angus Deaton
Census of India – Annual Health Survey Bulletins
Government of India Ministry of Finance – Ayushman Bharat for a New India -2022
Medium Healthcare Consulting Analytics
About the author:
This article has been written by Ritesh Dogra, alumnus from PGP Co '09, Moderator of the Alumni Healthcare Special Interest Group(SIG) & Managing Partner, Medium Healthcare Consulting.