The pandemic was the best time to boost the medical infrastructure of the country, reckons Vinod Kohli, an anaesthesiologist who started medical device manufacturing company Allied Medical in 1982. “Why can’t we show the world that we can make the best medical equipment?” he asks. Rooting for domestic medical device makers, Kohli reckons that India should make the most of the mistrust that China has notoriously earned after the pandemic. “This is a golden opportunity to take the space that China used to dominate,” he says. Globally, there is a lot of mistrust against China after the pandemic. India already has immense goodwill among most of the countries across the world to fill the vacuum. “Let’s start Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) with medical device makers. India can be a hub for supply to the world,” he says in an interview with Forbes India. Edited excerpts:
Covid was the best time to boost local medical equipment makers. Has it happened?
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen as the decision makers focussed on provision of ventilators (in terms of quantity) for Covid-19. Quality, specifications, regulations and technical backgrounds of the companies were ignored while placing orders. Some companies who got large orders had no past experience of manufacturing any medical device, and they are unlikely to do so in the future too. In fact, companies who got 60 percent of ventilator orders had no knowledge of medical devices and borrowed design from companies who also had bought the design from another company and changed hands over the last 10 years. They were given advances and other support.
What’s wrong with public sector undertakings (PSUs) making ventilators?
Giving orders for ventilators to PSUs, which are already busy with the Defence Research and Development Organisation, will not boost the indigenous production of medical devices. Policies to offer incentives to manufacture in India are ignoring MSMEs—the only group trained and certified to make ventilators. The government should have stuck to the existing manufacturers rather than pushing PSUs or automobile manufacturers who are not serious about this product line and their reputation in this business. If existing players were given more opportunities, a more conscious effort would have been put in to ensure product and after-sales quality.
India needs more hospitals, especially in smaller towns and villages. This has not happened…
Decision makers didn’t consider this and accepted that more hospitals can’t be provided in smaller towns and villages. It was possible to improve such services by attaching small nursing homes and hospitals with main government hospitals. Primary health care centres could have been upgraded with public-private partnership with manufacturers of medical devices.
In terms of quality, can local medical equipment makers compete with multinationals?
Give Indians a level-playing ground, and they can compete with anybody in the world. Local players in manufacturing of medical devices have been getting orders through tenders, and the interesting part is that they have always competed against multinationals and won such tenders. There are a number of examples where local manufacturers have qualified technically while multinational companies failed. However, in some cases, local manufacturers can’t get tender documents, and multinationals get a free field to make high profits. If supported financially, local manufacturers can compete with multinationals. Right now, it’s not a balanced fight, as desi players are at a disadvantage.
What’s your take on the National Digital Health Mission?
It’s a great idea and should be a game changer in India. To medical practitioners, digital health will be the biggest asset, and the pandemic has proved that. Having worked for the National Health Services, England, I can see the benefits of such a digital mission.