How patents are anti-poor and harming healthcare
By Arindam Chaudhuri
15th December 2012 11:42 PM
Come Diwali, and a considerable number of people all over the country get burns and many die of burn-related injuries. This Diwali, a small diya kept near a staircase had my 72-year-old aunt in its deadly wrap. Despite her saree being made of cotton, and despite my brother-in-law noticing the burning saree instantly and putting off the flames with buckets of water, within 20 seconds, she got 65 per cent burns. When we reached Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi—where we finally admitted her—the doctor told us that if she had been of my brother-in-law’s age, 36, he would have given her only a 20 per cent chance of survival with the third degree burns that she had. But then, there’s a small background story. The quick research we did during this period gave us a shocking statistic. In Delhi, the capital of India, there are only two hospitals capable of treating burn injuries (the other, apart from Apollo, being Safdarjung). If Delhi is like this, then the average Indian city has more or less no hospital to handle such cases.
Our discussions with one of the doctors at Apollo shocked us further. He said that a burn injury is a poor man’s injury and ergo didn’t have many hospitals as takers. It should have been obvious actually: it is the poor woman—not the man—who gets burnt when her saree catches fire from the kitchen stove kept on the floor. What was sadder was that despite the tremendous advancement of medicines for burn injuries (that have reduced chances of mortality to negligible even in severe burn cases), we still live in a country that has the highest number of people dying of completely curable burns.
Apollo, of course, is a very rich man’s place—treating my aunt would cost up to `90,000 per night, with medicines alone costing up to `60,000 per night. No wonder, even if your nearby hospital were to start a burn injury centre, chances are even the rich man wouldn’t be able to bear the expenses.
I have always been very excited about movements like copyleft (the anti-copyright movement). And I so hope that patent laws across the world too are drastically changed soon for the betterment of mankind. In his book called Sex, Science and Profits, Professor Terrence Kealey argues how there is no need to give patent rights to anyone for 30 years, when in reality the costs of research studies can be recovered back in three years on an average. Companies actually fool us on the costs of research and rob the poor worldwide using the grand leeway given by patents. Patents not only keep essential medicines expensive but also slow down innovation. History is evidence that the moment the patent right over a technology has concluded, there has been an immediate increase in innovation in that area—like in the case of the steam engine.
It’s time that we come up with a humane formula for deciding the number of years that companies can be granted patent rights—or we cut the patent protection period drastically short to suit the interests of the world, especially its poor, instead of keeping patents favourable towards the rich corporations. In medical sciences, this must be done with immediate effect. Additionally, policies similar to the Indian National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012—which puts a cap on the prices of 652 popular medicines—must be notified with immediate effect and should necessarily be expanded to include not just life-saving high-cost patented medical drugs, but also high-cost medical treatments and operations.
In the meanwhile, when anyone you know of goes through a fire accident and gets burnt, remember this: just rushing her to the nearest hospital might be of no use—for it’s considered a poor man’s injury for which your nearest hospital, even if it’s a Max, might have no treatment facility.
Chaudhuri is a management guru and honorary director of IIPM think tank
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