A crisis in access to medical training

If the Covid epidemic has exposed the shortcomings of the public health system, the Ukrainian crisis has blatantly shown the shortcomings of the medical education system in the country. The humanitarian problem posed by the evacuation of students from the conflict zone has received much attention. The crisis has also brought to light the reality of tens of thousands of students seeking medical training in Ukraine and other countries. According to reports, Ukraine has more than 20,000 such students. Countries like Romania and Poland and other former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan also have large populations of Indian students. These are not countries known for their high educational standards like the United States and Britain, where Indian students have traditionally gone to school. In the case of medical education, it is the lack of affordable opportunities in India that has forced students to go abroad and gain admission into colleges in these countries.

Around 90,000 places in undergraduate medicine are available in the country each year. More than 16 lakh candidates are vying through NEET and about 8.5 lakh of them qualify. Only about half of the 90,000 places are available within the government quota where the course is relatively affordable. Many students cannot afford the expenses even if they get admission in government quota seats in private colleges. Some states do not have this quota at all. The cost of education is around Rs 1 crore or more in private colleges. No student from an ordinary family can afford it. The thresholds for NEETs are rather low. In 2021, it was 138 points out of 720. The result is that poor but bright applicants are expelled while rich but less deserving and even below average students manage to gain admission into private colleges. Shekharappa, the father of Naveen Gyanagoudar, the student from Karnataka who was killed in Ukraine, said he could not support his son’s education in India when Naveen was a brilliant student. It will also impact the social makeup of the nation’s medical fraternity for years to come.

Apart from the affordability of education, the issue of availability of places also needs to be seriously addressed. There are more than 550 medical colleges in the country and their production is insufficient for a country of Indian population. According to the WHO standard of one doctor per 1,000 people, the country should have 1.38 million doctors, but it only has 1.2 million in 2021. There is also a serious shortage of other health personnel such as nurses and pharmacists. The Ukrainian crisis has highlighted the need for more investment and effort to expand medical education and make it accessible to most aspirants.

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Helen D. Jessen