By Aditya Kalra
NEW DELHI, July 18 (Reuters) - India's healthcare system is riddled with corruption and the national drug approvals agency is a "snakepit of vested interests", the health minister has said, backing a rising tide of criticism by doctors of unethical practices.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan's remarks came after leading doctors and advocacy groups joined hands in a bid to eradicate corruption from India's $74 billion healthcare industry, forming anti-graft panels at hospitals and writing open letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new government.
"I am more aware than anybody else of the corruption that is eating into the entrails of every aspect of governance, including the health system," Vardhan, himself a doctor, said in an interview with Friday's Indian Express newspaper. "I have inherited a poisoned chalice."
Practices such as taking kickbacks for referring patients to a particular test centre or receiving gifts from companies for prescribing their drugs are widespread in the medical profession.
India this week capped the prices of more than 100 drugs used to treat diseases ranging from diabetes to HIV, in a move likely to hit the profit margins of drug firms.
Though the industry is growing at 15 percent annually, according to consulting firm PwC, public spending on healthcare has stagnated at about 1 percent of gross domestic product for years. That compares to 3 percent in China and 8.3 percent in the United States, according to a World Bank database for 2012.
The anti-corruption debate gained momentum after Australian doctor David Berger wrote a column for the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in May, describing his encounters with corrupt professionals when he worked as a volunteer at a charitable hospital in the Himalayas.
Several eminent Indian doctors and editors of the journal followed up with their own articles in late June, exposing the sleaze problem faced by patients and the healthcare industry.
Berger's column, titled "Corruption ruins the doctor-patient relationship in India", said kickbacks and bribes oil every part of the healthcare apparatus.
"It is no surprise that investigations and procedures are abused as a means of milking patients," Berger wrote.
The column made 76-year-old Samiran Nundy, one of India's leading gastroenterologists, feel "ashamed", forcing him to put his own experiences into writing after working in the public and private sector for almost four decades.
Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, a leading multi-speciality hospital in the capital, has formed a committee for ethical practices under Nundy, listing new guidelines for its doctors to curb corruption.
"Many doctors may be opposed to having this body because they think it will interfere with their practice," Nundy told Reuters.
The All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi has launched an initiative called 'Society for Less Investigative Medicine' to deter doctors from advising patients to take unnecessary medical tests.
Advocacy group People's Health Movement has written an open letter to the health minister, seeking his personal intervention to eliminate corruption from India's private health sector.
The response to articles has overwhelmed BMJ's India editor Anita Jain, who said the journal will continue to focus on writing editorials to raise awareness of such practices.
"This (new panel) is for the next generation. Merit should be rewarded, not crookedness," Nundy said.
(Editing by Douglas Busvine and Robert Birsel)