In 2018, cancer killed 784,821 Indians. An estimated 2.25 million Indians are believed to be living with the disease. More than 1.15 million new cases were registered last year alone. These are worrisome figures for Indian policymakers and re-emphasise the rising burden of non-communicable diseases in India. But more worrisome are conclusions from a study that Indians are getting incorrect treatment for the disease.
The risk of developing cancer stands at 9.81 percent for men and 9.42 percent for women. Given the magnitude of the threat cancer poses to public health, it is staggering to know just how many of India’s cancer patients are not getting the correct treatment.
According to research published by Onco.com, a digital cancer care platform, as many as 83 percent of India’s cancer patients are not getting wholly correct treatment. Shockingly, fifteen percent of cancer patients are getting completely incorrect treatment. 27 percent, meanwhile, do not receive the correct chemotherapy drugs. 41 percent do not undergo the full battery of tests they need.
“With a mere seventeen percent of cancer patients being administered treatment that measures up to international guidelines, the implications for future cancer in India are dire.”
These figures highlight a startling failure in India’s response to its cancer burden, which doubled in the last 26 years and can be expected to increase further in the coming years. Cancer incurs a massive human cost, costing India Rs 4649 crore (US$6.7 billion) in 2012 – equivalent to 0.35 percent of its GDP.
With a mere seventeen percent of cancer patients being administered treatment that measures up to international guidelines, the implications for future cancer sufferers in India are dire. Already, access to the necessary health infrastructure is limited for many sufferers. India has just 62 dedicated cancer care facilities, across both the national and regional levels – to match a demand well in excess of twenty lakh (two million) patients.
In 2017, the Indian Institute of Health Management and Research (IIHMR) said, to cope with its increased cancer burden, India would need 5,000 oncologists and as many as 550 dedicated cancer care sites in 2020. At the time, the IIHMR noted that India had just 1,250 oncologists. Meanwhile, at existing facilities, services were not adequate. Just thirty percent of cancer care facilities at the time could offer patients advanced imaging technologies.
“Out-of-pocket spending on cancer care accounts for three quarters of total expenditure on cancer in India”
Cancer is a costly disease and can drain out 36 to 44 percent of household spending, according to a 2004 research on the economic burden of cancer on Indian households. In the last ten years, due to costly drugs, expensive infrastructure and new technology, the costs have shot up immensely.What can be worse, if despite spending a significant amount of family earning the treatment is wrong. Out-of-pocket spending on cancer care accounts for three quarters of total expenditure on cancer in India.
Many Indians do not seek medical treatment for cancer symptoms until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage, when it is more difficult to treat and the prognosis is significantly worse than it might have been had the cancer been detected earlier. With the revelation that so many Indian cancer patients are accessing substandard care, the implication is clear that India is facing a cancer crisis on many counts – and that there must be a wholesale effort to improve existing infrastructure and the workforce if the situation is to improve.