Days after the British Medical Journal published articles by doctors on corruption in Indian healthcare and prompted a debate among health and policy experts, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has said he is “fully conscious” he “inherited a poisoned chalice”. He has called the Medical Council of India a “corrupt organisation” and the Central Drug Standards Control Organisation, which oversees clinical trials, a “snake pit of vested interests”.
In an email response to queries on corruption in the healthcare sector, Harsh Vardhan said: “As a doctor and former health minister, I am more aware than anybody else of the corruption that is eating into the entrails of every aspect of governance, including the health system. Within days of assuming office I had remarked that the Medical Council of India is a corrupt organisation… There is corruption in the approval of drugs. The Central Drugs Standard Controls Organisation, which is supposed to oversee clinical trials, is another snake pit of vested interests.”
He said these “corrupt practices” had been exposed by several agencies in the past. “The corruption that goes behind approving drug approvals was exposed through Wikileaks and later confirmed by the Standing Committee of the Health Ministry in 2012. There are malpractices in Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS). This too has been brought out in a report of the parliamentary standing committee. So, who am I to deny that it is going on?”
Underlining that “tolerating corruption in today’s day and age is bad politics”, Harsh Vardhan said: “The private sector serves the economically well-off sections of society which places a premium on quality service. But it tolerates corrupt practices by doctors and nursing homes.”
He said a visit to a government hospital was not an option for people who sought healthcare in private hospitals “because in most parts of India, the government health sector is synonymous with overcrowding, apathy, filth and corruption. So they surrender to the corruption of the private sector.”
“I have inherited a poisoned chalice. But a revolution is coming.”
“The public perception of doctors is so poor now. This was not so when I joined the profession. I must reiterate here that the erosion of moral values in the community of doctors is at the root of this malaise. In my clinic in Krishna Nagar, I had put up a notice announcing my consultation fee and also the fact that those finding it difficult to pay need not bother. Why can’t all doctors do this? This is the starting point of transparency,” he said.
“When the Prime Minister gave me this responsibility, I was conscious that his objective of giving the people a world class and inexpensive public healthcare system would be impossible to realise without a thorough clean-up. Corruption has to be rooted out and there are no (two) views on that.”
Information technology, he said, was a “powerful corruption prevention tool”. “I have decided to introduce videography for recording meetings where decisions involving award of tenders or bulk purchases are made. Transparency is the key to a long-term solution. Let’s develop such computer software that it becomes impossible to indulge in graft,” he said.