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By Anand K
India has been reeling under the second wave of COVID-19; a massive surge was reported during the last fortnight. The highest single-day spike has crossed the three lakh mark. While the government believes COVID inappropriate behaviour is the primary reason for this sudden surge, it has put a tremendous burden on the healthcare sector in general and particularly on the diagnostics sector. The mounting pressure can be gauged from the fact that many private laboratories had to put a hold on new test requests in some parts of the country.
Reports suggest that more than 70% of medical decisions are based on laboratory results. Diagnostics has a decisive impact on the detection and screening of ailments; doctors clinically correlate the findings for the determination of the treatment methodology and monitoring. As the basis of medical decision making, diagnostics prevents the patient from the ill effects of trial-error treatment and over-prescription of medicine. World Health Organisation’s T3- Test, Treat and Track guideline has diagnostics at its core as it is impossible to fight the deadly COVID-19 without a diagnostics report.
However, often, diagnostic is not accorded the importance it deserves. Ignorance about its role in the healing process is a prominent reason for this step-motherly treatment. Working backstage, these health warriors are categorised under a single broad term- laboratory professionals. However, there are different segments of diagnostics professionals who help in the detection of the disease and deciding on the course of treatment. Phlebotomists, pathologists, laboratory technologists and scientists are diagnostics professionals who help in the determination process.
The diagnostics sector is severely under-resourced at this point when the need for trained professionals has multiplied. While the requirement for COVID-19 diagnosis has overshadowed all other diagnostic requirements, the reality is that the diagnostics sector lacked manpower even before the pandemic hit us. Reports suggest that in the years before COVID, there was a rapid hike in the salaries of phlebotomists due to a paucity of educated and trained professionals. A leading recruitment consultant pointed out in its survey that the number of trained phlebotomists in India was less than 125000. Phlebotomists are like the foot soldiers who form the first line of defence when it comes to diagnostics. With such an insignificant number of frontline warriors, India’s struggle against COVID was inevitable.
The diagnostics sector is not considered a lucrative career opportunity. Several causative factors are behind the development of this notion.
- Lack of awareness: Around 10 million students study science at the intermediate level; however, most of them are inclined towards making a career in Engineering or wish to become a doctor. Students are not aware of the career opportunity in the diagnostics sector. They reluctantly follow in the footsteps of their family members, seniors, and peers even if they do not wish to.
- Limited skilling and education opportunities: Though applied science courses and other courses related to diagnostics got a push in the last two decades, the number of institutions offering education and training in this field is limited. Furthermore, these courses are not promoted due to the lack of interest displayed by students.
- Highly fragmented diagnostics sector: The diagnostics sector is highly fragmented, the organised players have less than 35% of the total market share, and the market is dominated by unorganised stand-alone centres. A majority of these stand-alone centres do not have proper accreditation and their laboratory staff is not properly skilled.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for proactive measures from the government and the industry to resolve this anomaly at the earliest. The government must push for accreditation of laboratories just as it did in finalising our country’s first National Essential Diagnostics List (NEDL). With an increased allocation for healthcare in the budget, it is expected that the government would increase its expenditure on diagnostics. Moreover, the Ministry of Human Resource Development should ensure that more students are guided towards the diagnostics courses.
It is also a welcome move from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, for passing the National Commission for Allied and Healthcare Professionals Bill, 2021, which recognizes medical laboratory professionals and brings them from the quarters of neglect to that of due focus and attention. The bill is a major step to recognize their skill sets and contribution as frontline health workers, and the system would increase employment opportunities and enhance their true worth within India and globally.
Furthermore, the contagion has also presented an opportunity for the organised sector to expand its footprint across India. They need to partner with stand-alone labs and work towards the skill development of the staff of these centres. This would prove to be beneficial for them as it would be less time consuming and economical to train this semi-skilled workforce. This lot of trained professionals along with fresh graduates from educational institutes would reduce the gap between demand and supply.
(The author is
CEO of SRL Diagnostics. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)
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