Aravind Eye Care – The world in the eyes of a Social Business

4 Aug

I have been travelling the last few weeks and I am currently in India attending to some family matters and work. I have been spending most of my time in the city of Coimbatore and I recently visited an eye hospital run by the Aravind Eye care system.

Their mission is ‘To eradicate needless blindness by providing appropriate, compassionate and high quality eye care to all’.

What amazed me was how they were living their mission. The technology they use is very modern. The treatment is amongst the best in the world and Aravind has one of the highest treatment success rates in the world. No patient, however poor is refused treatment and several thousands of patients get free treatment.

Shubha and I visited Aravind with a patient at around 3:00 PM in the evening. We did not have any appointment. We entered the reception area and then we were quickly asked to register the patient. Since several patients come from far away villages for treatment, Aravind has done away with appointments all together. The registration fee is Rs. 50 ($1 and 10 cents). For poor patients who cannot afford to pay, it is waived. Aravind subsidizes the treatment for poor patients who cannot pay by the income it earns from those who can afford to pay. As soon as the registration was complete, we were ushered to the first testing station by a nurse. The patient went through a series of examinations – Refraction,  Preliminary examination, Eye and System examination, Dilatation and a Final examination with a doctor. The doctor then recommended an additional consultation with a specialist. We were done with the treatment by 5:30 PM. We were constantly being ushered from one station to another by the nurse and all steps went through with clock-work efficiency.

In some cases the patients require surgery or additional tests for glaucoma etc. All these are often done the same day itself and each of these additional procedures costs most patients Rs. 100 ($2 and 20 cents) or Rs. 200($4 and 40 cents). (Note: Health insurance is still not common in India, so these are actual costs of the treatment and not the copay amount or deductible).

Several aspects are truly noteworthy about Aravind:

The system is designed bottom up for providing eyecare to the poor and very often illiterate patients. All stations are numbered so patients can be simply told ‘Go to station 10’ for example. Additionally a nurse also ushers the patient from one station to another so even those patients who have no escorts are well taken care of.

The treatment through various stations happens extremely fast with minimal waiting between stations. It is almost like an assembly line. This minimizes loss of income for patients.

Their scale is also pretty massive. The Coimbatore hospital treats 1100 patients a day, works 6 days a week and has 140 doctors, 700 nurses and ward staff, and 35 administrative staff.

The doctors and specialists perform only the critical tasks for which their expertise is truly needed. The rest of the tasks are performed by well trained nurses. As a result doctors at Aravind see many more patients in day than doctors in other clinics. Thereby they gain more experience in treating common ailments and also treating rare conditions of the eye that doctors in other clinics rarely come across.

Aravind reminds me of the concept of Social Business that Muhammad Yunus talks about. I recently read Muhammad Yunus’s latest book ’Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs’. The book is literally a ‘How to’ manual distilling the decades of insight Muhammad Yunus has gathered. Having been through the journey of starting an organization that I see as a social business the book was most enjoyable and I would highly recommend the book to anyone who plans to start an organization whose primary goal is making a difference to the world in a sustainable manner.

Aravind can also be considered as a social business. It does not have for-profit investors in a traditional sense. It is not a typical charity either. It is sustainable and absolutely committed to its mission. It once again proves how imagination and commitment can make a big difference to the world.

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