In the time of COVID-19, the attention of physicians and policymakers alike has largely been focused on responding to the immediate needs of people experiencing the fallout from the novel coronavirus. For Radhika Jain, a postdoctoral fellow with the Asia Health Policy Program (AHPP) at APARC, the pandemic has further highlighted the importance of advancing policies that support effective and equitable public health systems.
We sat down with Jain to discuss her work and recent research into the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the efficacy of India’s healthcare services for people living with chronic, non-communicable diseases. Listen to the full conversation above or via our Soundcloud channel.
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Jain’s research focuses on the role of the private sector in health systems, frictions in health care markets, the extent to which public health policies serve the needs of target populations, and health policy design in lower-income countries. In particular, she studies India's health care system, probing into data sets and administrative records to identify the factors that contribute to poor health outcomes and determine what interventions increase the effectiveness of public health insurance.
In the case of India, the private healthcare sector is highly fragmented and made up of a collage of small and independently-run hospitals and service providers with varying levels of oversight and administrative regulation. Gathering data on patient costs, insurance use, and benefit allocation for different cohorts of people using private healthcare in the world's second-most populous nation is a central pillar in Jain's efforts to better understand and document how health systems are used and how they can be improved to better serve vulnerable populations.
For Jain, the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have re-emphasized the crucial role that a well-functioning public, government-backed health system plays in providing care to citizens during times when the private sector experiences sudden and severe disruptions. Working in collaboration with Pascaline Dupas, the faculty director at the Stanford King Center on Global Development and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Jain has documented the adverse effects of COVID-19 on accessibility to health services for patients needing treatment for chronic, non-communicable diseases.
Jain's and Dupas' recent working paper (published in AHPP's Working Paper Series) shows that the abrupt, severe lockdown instituted by the Indian government as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus had widespread impacts on individuals' ability to receive care for non-COVID-related healthcare needs such as dialysis. Their findings indicate that, among patients needing dialysis, the death rate between April and July 2020 was 25 percent higher than the death rate for a comparable cohort in the same months in 2019.
This increase in mortality is directly related to disruptions to critical health service delivery and accessibility caused by the lockdown measures. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed by Jain and Dupas reported experiencing disruptions to their care, with travel barriers and hospital closures or refusals cited as the most common causes. As a cohort, vulnerable populations were affected most by both the lockdown and ensuing disruptions to healthcare access.
Discrepancies like this between how a health system performs on paper and what happens in real-world practice is something Jain has a deeper appreciation for in light of the pandemic. “There were many policy prescriptions about how to respond to the lockdown, but what was done in India was a poorly conceived political response,” she cautions. “That’s something we who work on health policy need to keep in mind and contend with: What is the role of the political system, what is the role of the health system, and how does our research interact with all of that?”
Looking ahead, Radhika intends to continue researching and writing recommendations on how to make health systems viable and usable for all populations, including the most vulnerable. In particular, she is interested in investigating strategies to close engagement gaps and accessibility challenges women in India experience in utilizing healthcare services. She will continue working at APARC as a postdoctoral fellow with the Asia Health Policy Program through the end of the 2021-22 academic year.