Stanford researchers launch new approach to health policy in India

IMG 1365 Stanford medical student Bina Choi, center, interviews a woman about her pregnancy experience for the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative last summer. Choi is joined by colleagues from SIHPI partner organization the Institute of Socio-Economic Research on Development and Democracy.

Millions of women in India give birth at home, where they don’t have easy access to medical help if things go wrong. And things go wrong often. The country has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal and neonatal deaths.

To curb this problem, the government pays eligible pregnant women to deliver their babies in an accredited medical facility. With both a financial incentive and the promise of a safer childbirth, it would stand to reason that most Indian women should choose to deliver their babies in a hospital.

But that’s not the case.

Most babies are still born in homes. Early numbers from the financial incentive programs show less than half of eligible women are choosing to participate.

Stanford researchers Grant Miller and Nomita Divi think the answer to this quandary—and so many other well-intentioned policies that fall short—needs to first be considered from the perspective of patients, doctors and other health care providers. And that, they say, is a different approach than most health interventions take.

Miller and Divi are spearheading the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative, a program that seeks to rethink health interventions based on Indian health care users’ and providers’ motivations for seeking care. And to get there, the initiative’s focus comes from the people who confront these problems every day.

The program, which is connected to the International Policy Implementation Lab at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, first brings together community leaders for an in-depth discussion of where best to focus efforts. Next, teams (including students) take these recommendations and spend several months conducting fieldwork to understand health care decision-making, both from the side of patients and providers.  From this foundation, the initiative produces reports detailing the behavioral motivations for why certain dimensions of health care are or are not working.

“To really understand why health policies succeed or fail, you have to see the world through the eyes of the providers and patients,” said Miller, an associate professor of medicine and a core faculty member of FSI’s Center for Health Policy and Primary Care Outcome Research. “A lot of programs are created because they seem logical from the outside. But if you don't understand a patient’s priorities or motives, your program may not work.”

Miller and Divi first applied this approach to the very issue of childbirth in India. Why weren’t more women giving birth in hospitals when there were seemingly logical reasons to do so?

Over the summer, Miller, Divi, their Indian partners, and Stanford graduate and medical students set out to answer this question. During seven weeks of field interviews and subsequent analysis, the students—with guidance from Miller and Divi —identified reasons for why Indian women weren’t accepting a stipend to have their babies in the hospital. Some of these reasons included hidden costs of delivering a baby (like the transportation cost to the hospital or unexpected medical expenses), pressure from mothers-in-law to follow tradition and deliver at home, and fear of unwanted medical procedures like Caesarean sections or sterilization.

This understanding of why patients and providers don’t always make seemingly logical health care decisions is exactly what the India Health Policy Initiative is after.

“So much academic research is driven by donors or journal articles that we read,” Miller said. “So it seemed like we were starting from the wrong place in identifying health policy challenges that we should work on.”

In January, Miller and Divi convened a group of Indian health policy leaders, health care workers, academics and entrepreneurs to understand the challenges they faced in their daily work, and what health care questions they would most like to know more about. From this two-day meeting, the group identified two focus areas for the India Health Policy Initiative over the coming year: understanding more deeply the motivations and activities of both formal and informal health care providers, and what Indians value about care from the informal sector. These informal providers are often doctors or nurses with little or no medical training that are used by many low-income Indians.

To help answer these questions and provide opportunities for students, the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative engages top students from across the university. “We want to provide our students with an experience that will hopefully shape the way they think in their future careers,” said Divi, the initiative's project manager. “And we try to achieve this by training our students to help make sense of urgent health delivery challenges, immersing them in an intensive field experience, and teaching them how to generate insights.”

To better understand providers’ motivations, as well as patients’ perspectives on both the informal and formal providers, Miller and Divi will work with this new team to carry out qualitative fieldwork this summer.

Miller explained that the approach is very anthropological.

”To be able to understand these issues, we all have to see the world through another person’s eyes, whether that be a formal or informal health provider or a patient,” he said. “This approach fundamentally relies on strong collaboration with Indian partners.”

The initiative’s teams will spend their weeks interviewing different health care providers and patients in a handful of Indian villages, taking copious notes and ultimately translating hundreds of interviews into findings.

Roshan Shankar, MS/MPP ’14, worked as part of the initiative’s team last summer, focusing on understanding pregnant women’s decisions about where to deliver their babies. After considering several summer internships with consulting firms and international organizations, Shankar declined these opportunities, instead opting to work with the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative.

Shankar is from New Delhi and has always planned to move back to his home country and work in government after school. He said the India Health Policy Initiative was a way to better understand his nation and the pressing challenges facing it.

“I’m used to sitting at a table and not venturing out,” Shankar said. “This experience showed me that things are much more different on the ground than on paper.”

After his work with the Stanford Health Policy Initiative, Shankar said he is now certain he wants to return to India and work in government.

“It was a humbling and enlightening experience. I think the way we did this entire analysis will affect the way I do any work there,” he said. “It will ensure that I do a more effective evaluation of the policies and programs that I work on, and start by going to see people who use them.”

The Stanford India Health Policy Initiative is supported by several organizations including the Center for Innovation in Global Health and the Office of International Affairs.

Teal Pennebaker is a freelance writer.