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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Terror of the Bridge Course


“Bridge Courses” for care providers continue to sit squarely on the divisive lines among Indian healthcare experts. One side sees it as the path-breaking innovation that access denied communities desperately need, the glue that will fix our broken healthcare system, the one ring to bind us all in a smooth patient care pathway of quality primary care, efficient referral networks and focused secondary and tertiary care systems. The other side, equally passionate, is convinced that it will lead to large-scale malpractice, patient mismanagement and exploitation. I’m interested in examining this burning issue, and there are three questions I’d like to explore: 
  1. What is a bridge course, and why does the government of India keep proposing it?
  2. Why do my doctor friends dislike it so much?
  3. Could there be redemption for this “innovation” after all?
What is a bridge course?
Everyone knows this, but let’s say it again anyway – India has a shortage of qualified doctors. Bridge courses have often been mentioned among GOI's approaches to address the issue. In early 2017, the national medical council (NMC) proposed to build a mid-level cadre of healthcare workers by providing a six-month long “bridge course” to a variety of non-MBBS personnel who are part of India’s healthcare universe: AYUSH providers, nursing cadres, pharmacists and others, including informal providers (some state governments call such informal providers UMPs or unregistered medical practitioners, a far better term than “quacks”, which brings in unnecessary derision and makes the debate shallow). Post-training, these “bridged course trained providers” - let’s call them BPs - would be given conditional licenses to provide primary care and referral services in underserved areas. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a large proportion of the country's healthcare - primary care as well as emergency services - is already managed by UMPs. Bridge courses have the potential to make the system formal, accountable and transparent. 


Why is the formal medical community so repulsed by the bridge course? 
About 5 minutes after the NMC submitted the bill to parliament,  Indian medical association (IMA) and other physician groups erupted in passionate protests to get the bridge course proposal scrapped. Their key argument was that patient care will deteriorate under a system where healthcare delivery is provided by non-MBBS personnel. How can someone trained over six-months provide care comparable to an MBBS doctor with five plus years of training? My knee jerk response was that less-than-perfect-care ought to be better than the no-care which is the current state of affairs in areas where BPs would serve, but I dug deeper to better understand my doctor friends’ reasons for resistance:
  • It will be an implementation nightmare: It will be nearly impossible to ensure training quality, the UMPs will provide low quality care, keep managing cases beyond their skill set, either not refer patients to qualified secondary care at all, or only refer them when it is too late. 
  • The UMPs will encroach on the qualified doctors’ work: Even though BPs are meant to provide services in underserved rural and urban areas, financial incentives might drive them to migrate to overcrowded urban areas. Hospitals, whose profits are under pressure now more than ever, may to prefer to save costs by hiring these providers rather than formal medical doctors. Urban patients, who have the tendency to "doctor-shop", may prefer to walk in into clinics run by these BPs for cheaper care.
  • These courses are a threat and disrespect to the medical profession: BPs may indeed solve some of the doctor shortage issue, but this may reduce government inclination to build new medical colleges or to improve the medical education infrastructure. Also, if such ‘short-cuts’ to education are available, why would young people invest their decades of their lives in pursuing medical education? As my articulate friend Dr. Sonal Verma puts it - "I favor fixing our broken roads rather than building yet another weak bridge". 

It would be simplistic to dismiss some of these issues as being doctor-centric rather than patient-centric. Healthcare system strengthening plans need to be firmly entrenched within these realities of the medical profession in India. The protests worked, and bridge courses were removed from the NMC bill in 2018. GOI instructed states to take their own decisions on training programs for lay providers. IMA seems to have won the battle, but war is far from over, and it might be premature to throw the idea into the “absolutely irrelevant” pile just yet. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) has now (in April 2019) proposed a bridge course to train dentists to practice as MBBS physicians. This has led to a fresh round of protests.


Is there room for redemption?
Bridge courses might be inspired by what WHO calls “task shifting” - a process of delegation where appropriate tasks are moved from highly specialized to less specialized health workers. Task shifting has been implemented widely to address care delivery gaps in multiple areas, from HIV care to cardiovascular triage. Although recognized as a method to increase efficiency in healthcare, success rates vary across case studies and depend on a lot of related factors. Here’s my list, admittedly far from complete, of elements that need to be brought in before bridge courses become a part of India’s healthcare system:
  • Stringently developed, expertly delivered course content, with local customization as necessary 
  • Accountability not only in course content delivery but also in service delivery
  • Transparent referral networks based on digital tools that work
  • Incentive structures rooted in local social and cultural realities 
  • Advocacy and behavior change (​of all stakeholders including doctors, patients, other healthcare providers as well as communities) driven by evidence rather than rhetoric

Whether these bridges get built or burnt down will remain uncertain for now given the political landscape. It is important to note that the bridge course debate is central to the issue of healthcare access in India, and is relevant to other key questions: Is increasing the number of seats in medical colleges an efficient solution to doctor shortage? As more and more physicians prefer to get trained in specialized fields and immigrate to practice in the developed world or in tier 1 cities, who's responsible for primary care, especially in small towns and rural areas?



Given the limited evidence, the debate continues to be based on conjecture and expert opinion. Operational research, perhaps at subnational levels, would add valuable data to the conversation. It would great to see experimental models to measure the community health impact of a trained cadre of lay workers in selected districts or states. The experiments will neither be easy nor straightforward, but then game-changers seldom are.


Additional PHC (APHC) in eastern Bihar. The MBBS doctor assigned to the clinic lives in Patna. The rooms are filled with animal poop. For their healthcare needs, people in this village either call in the local informal providers, or walk to the nearest city, 10 km away, which has a PHC and private clinics. A bridge course trained provider might be useful for the villagers being "served" by this APHC [Image source: author]

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