For a country likely to see a 20% jump in cancer cases by 2020, India is shockingly ill-prepared to take on the attendant healthcare needs. There are only 1,600 oncologists for an estimated one crore cancer patients at present while the optimum penetration is one oncologist per 100,000 population. More important, the gap is only set to worsen as there are a limited number of speciality and super-speciality seats in medical institutions’ oncology departments. As per government data cited in a report in The Indian Express, gynaecological oncology sees only one new specialist every year. This is particularly worrisome as the National Health Profile projects female cancer patients outnumbering male ones by 2020.
Cancer treatment, apart from the physical and emotional costs, imposes huge financial costs as well. With the shortage of expert doctors and the overwhelming patient numbers projected, bringing costs down in the future becomes that much more difficult. The fact that the government’s National Cancer Control Progamme was last revised in 2004 is evidence of how poorly we are responding to the risk. While the focus of the programme remains creating Regional Cancer Centres and developing existing ones, there is negligible attention on increasing the number of oncologists—the programme outlay is mostly geared towards infrastructure development and creating awareness. So crippling is the gap that health department officials quoted in the IE report say that screening for cancer under the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases and Stroke has failed to take off. The gap between the optimum strength of oncologists and the actual numbers asks for a strategy focussed on increasing the number of seats in the medical colleges at a rapid pace. The government would do well by promoting private sector investment in oncology education and treatment while making cancer treatment one of the priority areas in healthcare spending.