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India at 75: Kashmir needed healthcare and we filled that gap – Dr Shuchin Bajaj

Dr Shuchin Bajaj has ventured to open a hospital in Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir LG, Manoj Sinha recently inaugurated a 150-bedded super speciality hospital in Nowgam, Kashmir. The Ujala Cygnus Kashmir Superspeciality Hospital will bring state-of-the-art healthcare facilities to a conflict-prone region besides generating employment for the local people.

India Narrative speaks with Dr Shuchin Bajaj, Founder Director, Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals, on the motivation behind starting the hospital in Kashmir. In an exclusive interview, Dr Bajaj tells us that medical facilities in Kashmir have been abysmally low, particularly those related to emergency services. He also says that even as India took rapid strides in healthcare serving a large population, the country still has to surmount serious challenges like nutrition and tuberculosis.

Excerpts from the interview:

IN: You opened up a super speciality hospital in Kashmir last week. What prompted you to go there?

Dr Bajaj: Kashmir is a beautiful place but has a peculiar set of problems. The Kashmiri people spend a lot on their houses and on weddings but they do not spend on healthcare.  Also, access to health facilities is very low in the region. 

Kashmir needs tertiary healthcare, facilities for organ transplantation, facilities for emergency services so that patients with heart attacks, head injuries and accidents arrive at a hospital within the 'golden hour' and lives can be saved.

Kashmir just has one top-of-the-line healthcare institute and that is the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar. People have to travel long distances to access health facilities.

The Kashmiris have late marriages due to which the fertility rate is falling. Currently, it is below the replacement level, much like Japan. Just consider this—the average age in Japan is 50 as compared to India, where it is 29.

The other serious problem in Kashmir is the mental health issue for which we need helplines. So, we have a lot of work to do in Kashmir on health and patient care.

IN: When you started the Cygnus chain of hospitals, you had a certain plan behind it. Can you explain that model?

Dr Bajaj: I started the Cygnus hospital due to recurring personal stories 11 years ago. I did not know at that time that Cygnus would become a chain of hospitals.

I have lived in small towns and have lots of friends and relatives there. Many friends would call me seeking help, saying, 'I am taking a relative to Delhi for treatment. Can you please come or provide support'. But then they would not call up or meet me because the patient would have died on the way to Delhi.

People do not have quick access to medical facilities in case of emergencies. This made me realise the need for starting hospitals which are accessible to people and are on the major highways. Regardless of their social and financial status, we provide medical support and services to trauma victims.

It is because of these reasons, and the loss of the golden hour, that we thought of opening a hospital in Kashmir. Now we have 18 hospitals across north India.


IN: Can you give an insight into how has healthcare developed in the country over the last 75 years?

Dr Bajaj
: Healthcare has been a work in progress in the country. At the time of Independence, India was a poor nation. Can you believe that in a nation of 36.1 crore people we had just 50,000 doctors and only 725 primary healthcare centres across the country. So, healthcare was inaccessible to a large number of people.

Things are much better now. We have one doctor per 1,456 people and we are producing one lakh doctors every year now. Our life expectancy has more than doubled from 32 years in 1947 to over 70 years now.

As you can see, we have done fairly well since Independence.

At the same time, we still have much ground to cover if we look at the progress made by other countries in global healthcare. Our Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) and the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) in the 1940s was very high. Now it has improved considerably but compared to many other countries, including in our neighbourhood and in south-east Asia, it is still high. This is an area where we can improve further.

Our expenditure on healthcare is just two per cent of the GDP. I think healthcare costs have pushed nearly six crore people below the poverty line. These are areas where we can improve. We still have the challenges of tuberculosis and malnutrition.

IN: How do you see the future of healthcare in the country? Where is it moving?

Dr Bajaj
: The next five to six years are of great promise to healthcare. The Prime minister himself is deeply invested in health-related schemes—the foremost being digital health.

The Prime Minister will announce three major schemes on health on the Independence Day. These are the Samagra Swasthya Yojana (SSY) which aims at providing universal and affordable healthcare to people. The second one is 'Heal by India', under which Indian doctors will be incentivised to go to other countries to provide healthcare, and the third is 'Heal in India' which will support the medical tourism industry in India.

We are supplying medicines to almost all the continents. After the supply chain problems in China, we are trying to get into the production of APIs. India is also focusing on the manufacture of medical devices.

R&D in medicine is being given a boost at the policy level but is yet to happen at the ground level. India has had a good understanding of healthcare for thousands of years because of ayurveda, so we will do well in health.

There is a focus on creating more medical schools. The government is also looking at bringing all district hospitals under the Public Private Partnership (PPP), which should bring quality healthcare to people.

IN: But the PPP model has usually cast suspicion in the minds of people.

Bajaj
: If the private sector and the government change their attitude towards the PPP model, and if we give it time, it can be successful.

I think the government has to acknowledge that the private sector needs profit. Such ventures have to become sustainable. Also, the government has to keep its policies consistent. If the government changes, policies should not change.

On the part of the private sector, it should not turn a PPP partnership into a profiteering one. Also, PPP hospitals should not turn into monopolist oligarchies. The private sector is much more enterprising and agile and has the potential to turn around the healthcare sector.

If we can keep the suspicions aside and usher in the spirit of working together, PPP in healthcare can be highly successful.

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