Focusing on IP alone will not increase access to healthcare

Access to healthcare is a major challenge in developing countries as this involves making available affordable and quality medicines to people living in poverty. Goal 3 of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

A recent UN panel has been formed to look into the idea of access to medicines but somehow limits its scope to just IP & Innovation and these, in turn, act as a hindrance to access. This approach is too narrow in scope and may end up damaging the prospects of healthcare access in developing countries. The damage it may cause is immense as thinking could develop that only IP & Innovation act as the barrier to access while ignoring other factors that might have a considerable bearing on healthcare access in developing countries like India.

There are four essential points about healthcare access in developing countries that need to be factored in before making any decisions on the issue.

First, the challenges of access to medicines are not limited to IP alone. There are other issues like infrastructure challenges — lack of proper storage and distribution facilities. Often in India with its three-tiered hierarchy, the lowermost level often does not have proper medicines or trained manpower to look into patient ailments.

Also, there are challenges in the supply chain which prevent access to medicines. Some medicines have to be cold-stored and studies have found often these medicines are not stored the way they should have been, resulting in them being rendered ineffective. Similarly, most doctors prefer living in urban areas, which is an impediment to Goal 3 and prevents healthcare access in rural areas. Likewise, healthcare insurance penetration levels are low in India leading to out-of-pocket spending by people and lack of finances for chronic diseases.

Second, the role of IP is not just protection of rights of inventors. It must also be seen as a mechanism for provision and discovery of medicines which could change the prospects of treatment of diseases. Some diseases — like AIDS — still do not have medicines that can cure.

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