In 2007, a young man visited Calcutta Kids from abroad. He was interested in exploring why Calcutta Kids at that time was working with the private health sector rather than the government sector. Instead of explaining the deplorable state of government hospitals and going into the gory details of government bureaucracy, I asked the young man if he might like to join me in visiting a nearby government hospital. He agreed and we hopped into a cycle rickshaw and headed for the hospital.
Fifteen minutes later, we stepped out of the rickshaw, walked into the hospital, and were greeted by a line of stretchers carrying corpses waiting to be picked up by the morgue. We stood there for a few moments trying to get our bearings. When we moved forward, our guest tripped over a large rat that was scurrying across the floor. The young man told me that he now understood why we worked with private hospitals and clinics.
For the most part, our experiences with private clinics and hospitals over the years have been positive ones. Our beneficiaries prefer the private sector as does most of the population of India. And, given the fact that Calcutta Kids was covering the cost of this private hospitalization partially or fully, the beneficiaries were overwhelmingly pleased with this arrangement.
Over the years, however, our understanding of both the private and public health sector in India has evolved, and as we recruited more medical staff on our team, we began to seriously question our exclusive partnership with the private sector.
Part of the evolution in our thinking resulted from a better understanding of C-sections in our area. The rising cost of C-sections our beneficiaries are paying combined with our understanding of the dangers of unnecessary C-sections frightened the Calcutta Kids team and we began to examine our options carefully.
We realized that we were facing two major issues: the first a potential major operational threat to Calcutta Kids; the second an ethical dilemma: Because we have had relationships with particular clinics and were paying the fees for deliveries at these clinics, we were in essence accrediting them; beneficiaries who trusted us throughout their pregnancies were trusting the facilities with which we partnered. This meant, in turn, that if something at these clinics were to go wrong, we would be blamed. Such a situation could create major problems for Calcutta Kids. The ethical dilemma was that since we were paying for the deliveries at these clinics which practiced excessive use of C-sections, we were partially responsible for any deleterious effects of an unnecessary C-section on a mother or child. Was it possible that while we believed we were providing the best possible care for pregnant women and children, we might be exposing them to unnecessary risk?
Below is a brief synopsis of our discussions.
- We could speak with the private sector clinics, encourage them to follow WHO protocols on the appropriate conditions for C-sections, and then request medical reports for each C-section financed by Calcutta Kids. This option was tried without success. After all, C-sections are increasingly the norm, and the clinics did not want to follow a protocol inflicted upon them by an NGO.
- We could open our own maternity clinic, although at an exorbitant cost. This was never really an option. Our focus is on nutrition, BCC, and preventive care and that is where it should remain.
- We could encourage our patients to advocate themselves for normal deliveries unless a C-section is clearly warranted. This we also do but with limited success. Rarely will a poor uneducated family go against the advice of a doctor.
- We could stop paying for C-sections altogether. But what about those rare cases where C-sections are indeed necessary and families cannot afford them?
- We could partner exclusively with the government hospitals. But this goes against the preference of our beneficiaries.
Finding none of these options satisfactory, and recognizing the danger to our beneficiaries and to Calcutta Kids, we ended up terminating our formal partnerships with the private sector. What we put in its place is a delivery savings scheme—a financial incentive to ensure a facility-based delivery. The delivery savings scheme enables women to save money in a safe place and to receive a matched amount from Calcutta Kids of up to 2,000 rupees. The beneficiaries then can choose to spend this money at a private clinic (Rs.4000 will likely cover a normal delivery, but not the full cost of a C-section) or they can go to a government hospital where the delivery will be free and use this savings for postnatal care.
Along with the delivery savings scheme, we’ve begun a program of intensive counseling for pregnant women to help assure that they understand all that they need to know about deliveries and can make an educated decision about whether to have a C-section if the doctor recommends one.
The last blog post in this four part series will speak about Calcutta Kids’ experience with the delivery savings scheme as well as the curriculum mentioned above. –Noah Levinson