India philanthropic giant Tata Trusts has tentatively agreed to work with the India state of Assam to upgrade the state's ability to provide cancer treatment to its population. Assam has one of the highest per capita cancer rates in the country, but lacks the specialists and facilities necessary to diagnose and treat cancer compared to metropolitan areas in Southern and Western India.
Providing specialized care to rural India is challenging, given that highly trained physicians tend to stay closer to urban centers where patient numbers and average compensation are higher. Assam's needs for cancer specialists is particularly acute, according to VR Ramanan, deputy medical director at Tata Medical Center in Kolkata, who notes that Assam’s medical colleges are overwhelmed with hundreds of new cancer patients every day. Patients diagnosed with cancer in Assam must typically travel across the country to Mumbai or Delhi if they want treatments that are up to current standards, a costly prospect that leaves many Assam families without access to treatment. “It is devastating to the family,” says Ramanan.
Under the proposed agreement with Tata, scheduled to be finalized in late July 2017, the Assam government will in 2018 build and outfit five 100-bed cancer treatment wings equipped to provide surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The wings will be located at the Gauhati Medical College Hospital, the Dr B Borooah Cancer Institute and three new state medical-college hospitals. Tata Trust will provide physician and staff training through established programs at Tata-run medical centers in Mumbai and Kolkata, as well as in Assam’s medical colleges. “Tata will train existing doctors, pick out the new generation of doctors, and send them back to deliver modern cancer care near their homes," says Ramanan. Tata Medical Group will also advise the government on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
Tata Trusts is the philanthropic branch of the US$100 billion Tata Group. Healthcare has become a major focus of the organization in recent years, with a particular emphasis on controlling cancer. Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, supported in part by the government, provides free primary care to more than two-thirds of its patients, while Tata Medical Center in Kolkata, which is largely donor-funded, sees more than 800 cancer patients per day, most of them poor. According to Ramanan, Tata Group negotiates lower chemotherapy-drug prices from pharmaceutical companies on behalf of both of its medical centers, reducing what is for most patients the bulk of treatment costs.
But Ramanan says Tata's biggest impact on the disease will come from developing better systems of preventative care and early diagnosis. “Unless symptoms are recognized early by trained technicians, it will be difficult for anyone to stop these diseases,” he says. To that end, Tata Trusts is providing education to local healthcare personnel on cancer awareness practices, and helping to plan and fund rural cancer-screening centers. One goal: a reduction in smoking rates that would lead to halving the state's cancer burden within 15 years.
— Alex Freedman
Alex Freedman is a freelance healthcare writer based in Portland, Oregon.