Evidence Based Medicine in Developing Countries
Have developing countries actually been active in EBM (Evidence Based Medicine)? This was a question that kept ringing in my head during a discussion I had with some of my buds recently. Speak to a Joe medic in any of the medical establishments in a country like India, and you can’t help feeling that developing countries for the most part have become consumers of research that cannot be applied to them. These medics are not only being taught but are also being tested on guidelines developed by a plethora of alien organizations such as NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence-UK), SIGNS (Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network-UK), Cochrane (UK), ACP (American College of Physicians-US), CDC (Centers for Disease Control-US), NIH (National Institutes of Health-US) and many others in their curricula. Most of these guidelines have been produced for patient populations that are entirely foreign to them.
The only international body with a modicum of relevance to their lives and that of their patients and one which cuts across all geographical and cultural lines is the WHO (World Health Organization). Some might argue that such an enormous and overarching agency as the WHO is intrinsically incapable of producing practice guidelines that might be sufficiently context-centric to be of any use. The WHO sure has a lot of responsibility on its hands and it really is difficult to produce guidelines that apply to all geo-cultural contexts. Indeed, the WHO has produced only a handful of guidelines to date.
India and developing countries like it, desperately need indigenous agencies to construct and regulate guidelines that are appropriate to their peoples’ resources and needs. It is extremely common, for example, to see how guidelines by some agency are taken lightly solely because of resource constraints (transportation problems, lack of appropriate instruments, etc.). Actions that a clinician needs to make given these constraints, need to be backed by evidence. The whole idea of EBM is that actions need to be based on the ‘best available’ collective body of scientific evidence pertaining to a problem – pathological, economic, whatever. Doesn’t it make sense then, to look for ‘evidence’ backing a given course of action to our problems?
We do have bodies like the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) making progress, but honestly we aren’t doing enough. Over the course of my undergrad career, perhaps the only ICMR guidelines we came across were a handful of appendices at the back of a pediatrics textbook. I mean, come on! We can do better than that, right? The arguments linking this appalling void to decreased government funding are no doubt valid. Budgets allocated to healthcare are grossly below the minimum ‘5% of Gross Domestic Product’ standard set by the WHO and quite surprisingly have kept declining. Amidst this budget-strapping, public healthcare establishments are overwhelmed by the demand for clinicians whose focus is on the manual delivery of healthcare services rather than research. In the ‘medical automobile’, these clinicians are just too busy being passengers in their back seats to care about driving. This unbalanced emphasis has had a profound impact on the very nature of our medical society. Its effects are visible right from the very beginning, as medical students enroll into institutes. Students are not even remotely exposed to the tenets underlying academic medicine and there is absolutely no mentorship mechanism in place at any level, all the way up to post-graduation and beyond. Departmental research is obscenely underfunded and students lack motivation to get involved in the absence of a nurturing environment. To make matters worse, owing to the abject lack of any academic medical component whatsoever in their curricula, students find it near impossible to take time out to engage in any form of academic activity at all. Even if they do manage it, their efforts often receive no curricular credit. Post-graduate students take the thesis requirement casually and often resort to a trial-and-error hodgepodge approach in the absence of necessary guidance. The situation finally spirals down to a vicious cycle where the blind lead the blind. End result: Institutes in chaos whose sole purpose is to produce en masse, semi-literate manual clinicians of low-innovative-potential who can’t even search or appraise medical literature, let alone use it properly.
Let’s just try to understand why this is the need of the hour. It not only paralyzes our education system but also our fragile economy. How does it degrade our economy? Well, without national guidelines there can’t be a just audit system in healthcare establishments. Without audits, resources are squandered and quality of care declines. When quality declines, the disease burden in a population rises and that in turn leads to an economic vicious cycle as national productivity declines.
How do we solve this?
- Government funding on healthcare ought to increase. Clearly, providing concessions and subsidies to private establishments hasn’t and most definitely isn’t going to produce results. Private establishments only care about making money – from the public or the government, and that’s all. Unless incentives are provided to them to engage in academic medicine or research, they aren’t going to bear the torch. In a developing country like India, the sheer demand for manual services forms a competing interest for these entities.
- Even if public funding is lacking, it might be possible to develop meaningful research. Some of the most groundbreaking research comes out of very small undertakings. It didn’t take a million dollars for us to realize the benefits of surgical asepsis.
- Hierarchical translational research bodies ought to be created – private or public or a possible mix of the two. Guidelines need to be produced and taught at medical schools. Students should no longer need to put up with the arbitrary whims of their superiors in the face of inapplicable guidelines in their textbooks.
- Audit systems should be enforced at all healthcare establishments. Students and practitioners should be taught how to audit their departments or practices.
- An academic component should be incorporated into the medical curriculum at all career grades – whether optional or otherwise. Mentorship mechanisms should be brought into place and could be incentive driven. Sources of funding and grants should be made more accessible and greater in number.
I hope readers have found this post interesting :-) . Do care to leave behind your comments.
Readability grades for this post:
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Lix: 50.3 = school year 9
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