No Private Sector, No Solution: Experts Stress the Criticality of the Private Healthcare System’s Response to COVID-19

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Mumbai, May 14, 2020: Public health and economic experts stressed the importance of organising and fortifying the private healthcare system’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, given the large proportion of the population it caters to.

“We are a mixed healthcare system and two-thirds [of services] are provided by the private healthcare system,” said Dr Krishna Reddy, Country Director of ACCESS Health International. “In the absence of a steering [or] governance mechanism, it’s fragmented.” Dr Reddy suggested further coordination among private providers within particular States to account for and pool critical resources such as ventilators.

Managing Director and CEO of Manipal Hospitals, Dilip Jose emphasised the importance of supporting smaller-scale private healthcare providers, including nursing homes and local hospitals. “Many of these smaller enterprises are now facing significant cash crunches…if you look at Tier 2 and 3 towns, smaller hospitals are beginning to shut down,” he said. “So at a time when India requires all the beds at its disposal, we are beginning to lose capacity from the system.” He suggested support go to urgent needs such as payment of staff salaries, provision of PPE, and building staff capacity.

The discussion took place on Wednesday – May 13, 2020, during the second session of a three-part webinar series titled ‘Leaders with Purpose’ co-hosted by Samhita Social Ventures and IDFC Institute. The session was focused on the gaps in India’s public health system and sector that have been highlighted and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the private sector can address them.

Along with Dr Reddy and Mr Jose, panellists included former Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and PM’s Economic Advisory Council Member – Dr Shamika Ravi, and Ascent Health and Pharmeasy Co-Founder and CEO – Siddharth Shah and Founder and CEO Samhita Social Ventures – Priya Naik. The panel discussion was moderated by Manoj Mohanan, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Duke University.

Given the unprecedented opportunity that the pandemic has provided to reimagine health systems, the panel suggested rethinking the roles of pharmacists and smaller clinics and labs in delivering specialised services at a local level. Dr Mor suggested upskilling and capacity building programmes could enable these workers to provide better advice on medication, even oxygen treatments.

The discussion saw all panellists collectively stressing the importance of taking a holistic and long-term approach, bearing in mind that India faces a number of non-COVID-19 health challenges, including a lack of immunisation and a rising burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancers and diabetes, which continue to need attention. Dilip Jose highlighted that in April 2020, only 20 renal transplants were conducted, compared to a typical monthly average of between 650 and 700.

The panellists also recommended that corporate philanthropy efforts take the approach of identifying particular communities with whom they have the reach, for example, populations surrounding factory areas, and companies’ own employees and their families, and other at-risk groups, and identify and address their specific needs in the context of the pandemic.

Samhita Social Ventures has facilitated and launched two alliances — the India Workers Alliance (IWA) and India Protectors Alliance (IPA) – to support migrant and informal sector workers who have been economically-affected by the COVID-19 crisis, as well as frontline workers such as health workers and law enforcement. The alliances are collective CSR funds, which came to life working in tandem with corporates, social enterprises, non-profits and government agencies to deliver the right support to the right person quickly. The solutions, including direct cash transfers, insurance and social security, and capacity building and upskilling support, have been developed in partnership with experts, corporate and civil society leaders, and the government. The alliances have reached upwards of 35,000 people thus far, and are continuing to expand reach.

Mr Shah said emphasised that all businesses should also be looking at how to adapt their operations and customer engagement strategies to minimise contact and risk of infection in a post-lockdown, pre-vaccine scenario. “[You will] see an unbelievable level of digital transformation and consumer flight towards safety…there is going to be a life after lockdown until you get a vaccine, and the reengineering in that process is going to be very critical,” he said. “I think investing in something like this is also a great service to society.”

There is one more webinar in the “Leaders With Purpose” series to follow this week: From 15:30 – 18:30 IST on Friday, May 15, a discussion with Dr Reuben Abraham, Dr Rajiv Lall, Abhiraj Bhal, Punit Lalbhai and Rahil Rangwala will highlight state capacity gaps in providing support to India’s labour force at this critical time, and how companies, amidst turbulent externalities, can collectively plug them in order to protect their most important asset — human capital.

The full recording of the webinar is available at Samhita’s YouTube channel.