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Some questions for India's largest healthcare network

Catholic health workers take stock and look ahead

  • Augustine J Veliath, New Delhi
  • India
  • October 28, 2013
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A little known fact: while the Catholic community forms little more than one per cent of India's one billion people, it operates the world’s largest non-government health network.

This network, largely run by women, comes together under an umbrella called CHAI, or the Catholic Health Association of India. It celebrated its 70 years of existence with a four-day program in Bangalore, concluding on October 26.

Originally founded by a group of nuns, the organization now has 3,410 member institutions including 484 large hospitals, more than 2,000 small/medium hospitals and health centers, 27 nursing schools and 52 leprosy centers.  It comprises 11 regional units, 1000 nun-doctors, 25,000 nun-nurses and 10,000 paramedics.

Its strength is not just in its numbers, but in its combined reputation, cumulative experience and pan-Indian presence, in close association with parishes and dioceses nationwide.

As it has reached its 70th year, the Bangalore program was an appropriate occasion to take stock and ask some pertinent questions about the way ahead. Here are some of the main talking points:

Will the network keep pace with the new ‘third world’ pope? Francis is concerned above all with people who seem to have been tossed on an "existential garbage pile." Famously, he also said shortly after his election that he dreams of a "poor church for the poor." There is a new and more relevant Church emerging. The smaller, parish-based health institutions and personnel especially will have a major role to play, representing Francis in their parish.

Will the network bring in a new culture of caring for the caregiver, supporting the workforce in its institutions and establishing a model for governments and other major healthcare providers? In the recent past, several groups of nurses and paramedics have staged public demonstrations, seeking pay hikes and better facilities. Let us hope such public strikes will not happen in Catholic institutions. But will the network become a model in ensuring the rights of workers? Will the member institutions - and through them the Church itself - be seen as a champion of workers?

Now that the government has announced the National Rural Health Mission and other flagship programs, will CHAI rise to the challenge of showing the rest of the country how missions can be made to benefit the poorest of the poor?

The government has also insisted that companies spend a portion of their profits on social responsibility. This could become a source of funding for many CHAI institutions and projects. But will CHAI position itself to get a share of the pie? Will CHAI develop a model that any group will be eager to invest in?

Will CHAI be able to fill the gaps created by the drop in religious vocations? More and more professionals are required to run CHAI institutions. Will building such a cadre, and establishing norms and standards for them, pave the way for new ethics of work and new standards of professionalism?

Will CHAI make use of emerging technologies? Advances in telecoms, radio and social media offer great challenges. The network’s members need to make a quantum leap into deploying all the innovations brought by the mobile phone, the internet and radio on demand, to bring universal health coverage.

As Ravi Narain, a long term friend of CHAI and a highly respected community health authority, puts it, “the leaven has to move from the missionary bread to the health for all bread."

Augustine J. Veliath, till recently a Communication Specialist with the United Nations, is a leading voice on public health, inclusion and rights of children. He is also the founder director of Listeners’ Institute. 

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