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Manmohan sees medical tourism as salve for health sector


NEW DELHI, Mar 28 (AFP): Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Tuesday called for an overhaul of India's creaky health sector to spur medical tourism and offer hope to millions of Indians deprived even of a hospital bed.
Singh's appeal came at the launch of an initiative involving private players and the government to train health managers in India, which according to a 2005 World Health Organisation report has fewer than one hospital bed and one physician per 1,000 people.
"India faces the possibility of becoming a global destination for cheap and high quality healthcare, and the demographic contrast between a young India and an aging world gives us an opportunity to train professionals at different levels to meet the needs of the emerging global care industry," Singh told reporters.
"These issues have not come on the policy radar because of the absence of institutions like public health schools," he said as he launched the Public Health Foundation of India, which is backed by global forums such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Trained personnel could help "build capacities at middle and senior management levels in the Indian health system" and make it a hot destination for foreigners seeking affordable medical care, he said.
Last June, India decided to offer a health visa to spur the trend of medical outsourcing that according to a 2004 study could add as much as two billion dollars to the economy by 2012.
The study by the Confederation of Indian Industry and consultants McKinsey and Co said the number of foreigners visiting India for medical treatment could grow by 15 percent annually from 2004's 15,000.
Singh, however, rapped the private sector for unethical practices and said New Delhi must also address issues such as revitalising medical research, fighting tropical diseases and building an infrastructure for preventive medicine.
"The record of the private sector in India has not been as hopeful even though it is the dominant source of healthcare provisioning. We are familiar with reports of unethical practices, including commissions given in return for referral and diagnostic work," he said.
Some 75 percent of India's health infrastructure is in urban areas where only 27 percent of the population lives. In the countryside, one physician may often have to care for populations exceeding 200,000.
The inadequacy of basic healthcare was underscored by the deaths of 1,100 people in north India last summer from mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis, a disease that can be prevented by immunisation.
In April last year, India promised to spend 67 billion rupees (US$1.55 billion) to improve health care in 300,000 villages by involving 250,000 women over the following three years but the pledge remains largely on paper.