An ENT surgeon by profession, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan, who is fondly called ‘Doctor Saab’, has never lost an election, be it the Lok Sabha or state Assembly. He spoke to Teena Thacker on the ‘health for all’ policy and how he intends to improve deteriorating health services in the country.
To fulfil Narendra Modi government’s “health for all” agenda, how have you chalked out your priorities?
In a subject like health one cannot have priorities. Everything has to be your priority and you have to work accordingly.
For instance, in a body, brain is a priority, but you cannot ignore the heart or any limb for that matter.
I feel that all issues are equally important and that’s how I have started working. I am reviewing everything, trying to monitor, trying to push things, trying to convert ideas into future plans.
What is your main focus for the first 100 days?
There is nothing called an “agenda for 100 days”. I don’t know from where this term has come.
I have never said anything about “100 days” nor has the Prime Minister announced anything. Our job is to deliver within 60 months, that’s the five-year period.
If there is an agenda for 100 days, for me it’s to put everything in order. My target would be to at least monitor everything in health in 100 days, give my ideas, plan out for everything.
Even if you think of opening a dispensary you cannot do it in 100 days. So, for me, 100 days is basically the time to review everything, strengthen everything and make a humble beginning.
What can be done to tackle the problem of shortage of doctors, specially in rural areas?
You cannot tackle this problem from one angle. Doctors also have their problems, as does the system.
There are many doctors who are ready to go and serve in rural areas, but they do not have adequate facilities there for their children and family. We have to find a way out.
In the next couple of years we want to convert many district hospitals into medical colleges. This entails improving facilities, getting more manpower. I also feel that doctors of Ayush (homeopathy) are underutilised.
They have to be given some sort of training so that they can be utilised at the healthcare centres. They have to play a bigger role in the system.
I am all for promoting Ayush in a big way which has not been done in the past. Despite the fact that I am a doctor of modern medicine, I feel that Unani, yoga, naturopathy and ayurveda have an inherent power to deal with many illnesses.
These indigenous, traditional systems are complete systems. If I look at the history of the Indian system of medicine, it was rich in knowledge.
So much so that the Khalifa of Baghdad got this knowledge translated into Arabic. Even the modern system of medicine has evolved out of that knowledge. This is precious and we need to use it in a big way.
We have to try and get rid of the bottlenecks so that there is an integration of all the system of medicine because no single system is capable of treating all illnesses.
Former health ministers tried to introduce compulsory rural posting and even proposed new courses for doctors which would qualify them to work in primary health centres. However, the schemes could never be started because of resistance from doctors and medical associations. How do you plan to improve the doctor-patient ratio?
I would not consider a programme less than an MBBS. I would not like to compromise on the quality of medical education, but I would certainly like to encourage doctors of Ayush.
They are qualified, have done four-and-a-half year long courses. We just have to train them a little bit.
I too feel that doctors must spend some time in rural areas. Normally this is a part of their internship, but to solve the problem of shortage of doctors, both doctors and medical institutes have to take a broader approach.
Of course they have their own problems, and those need to be resolved, but they have to pay back to the society. I will soon have the modalities worked out.
My approach is different — rather than forcing, if you deliberate and brainstorm, you can achieve things.
I will build consensus before I introduce anything. I will convince medical associations to further convince the medical fraternity to serve in rural areas.
Even places like All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) have a lot of vacancies. What is the core problem?
It is true that there is a problem in the selection process. They are quite cumbersome.
These procedures will have to looked at again, and this requires a multi-centric approach.
To have more manpower we are working on three-four things: We plan to convert district hospitals into medical colleges; we are going to have more AIIMS like institutes, plus 50 cancer institutes.
Even in these institutes I have directed that public health institutes should be within the campus. I have said that all the institutions should have mechanisms to introduce public health specialists.
What do you think about medical education in our country? What changes need to be brought in to improve the quality of medical education?
Medical education has been neglected. For a long time the Medical Council of India (MCI) has been a big source of corruption.
I am in favour of everything which is positive. There are many good things that have been ignored, like the common medical entrance.
The novel idea to have a single test was the most ideal thing. However, many states resisted and went to the court.
I shall relook at the proposal and see what can be done to introduce it again. I strongly feel that it is the most ideal thing, for a very simple reason that private medical education is very expensive.
Will you restructure the existing Medical Council of India? Do you think the health minister should have the authority to remove MCI officials, including the president and vice-president?
I will go to the depth of this issue. It’s a big Pandora’s box and I don’t want to get stuck in the beginning.
I do not want to encroach upon the autonomy of MCI but I will also not allow them to be unprofessional.
We will have to develop a mechanism to ensure “no corruption”. Autonomy does not mean that one is free.
I am right now focusing on National Health Missions. Once my basic work is done there, I will get the bottom of other issues.