All Seeing All Caring
Aravind Eye Care Systems has a simple vision: “To eliminate needless blindness”. This inspiring private organisation demonstrates compassion at every level of its activities, from patient care to teaching, training, research and its outreach programme.
With headquarters in Madurai and facilities throughout Tamil Nadu, Aravind is one of the largest eye care centres in the world. But its success is not just about care, technology and efficiency. This organisation is also unique because it treats a large proportion of its patients for free.
Aravind Eye Care Systems began with the late Dr Venkataswamy (1918-2006), a remarkable man with an inspiring vision. Deeply concerned about the number of people affected by blindness in India and determined to do something about it, he established Aravind as a small 11-bed hospital in Madurai in 1976.
Since then, Aravind has expanded to include seven hospitals in Madurai, Theni, Tirunelveli, Coimbatore, Puducherry, Dindigul and Tirupur. Together, these hospitals have so far treated over 2.5 million outpatients and performed over 300,000 surgeries.
The Gift of Sight
Dr. S. Aravind: inheritor of a legacy
Dr. S. Aravind is the Administrator of the Madurai hospital. A natural leader, Dr Aravind has a perfect balance of confidence, charisma and compassion. But he is not only an ophthalmologist, he has also completed an MBA from the University of Michigan in the US.
His motivation is simple. “In my job, I get the best of both worlds. Our work allows us to reach people. It allows all of us to give by default,” he explains. “Giving goes beyond the service you provide. It is a gift that doesn’t stop with you.”
As a WHO Collaborating Centre for the Prevention of Blindness, Aravind is one of the largest eye care facilities in the world, admired and revered for both their services as well as their novel and highly effective business model.
There are two types of patients: those who pay and those who do not. The paying patients make up about 30 percent of Aravind’s patient base, while the rest get treatment for free.
It’s a novel and progressive model that seems to work. Dr Aravind informs me that 99 percent of paying patients aren’t aware of their indirect contribution towards eye care for the poor. It’s a startling fact but at the same time quietly satisfying.
In the Eyes of the Team
“Without a great team of people, none of this would be possible. This would all be meaningless,” Dr Aravind says with thoughtful reflection. From the moment someone steps into the hospital they are helped and cared for by different staff members.
Employing around 1,900 people in the Madurai Hospital, they have a total of 3,800 employees in Tamil Nadu. Women make up around 80 percent of total employees and 30 percent of the leadership team. Unlike many employers in the West who may fear the longevity of women employees of a particular age, Aravind is fully accepting and supportive of the cultural expectations placed on women in India.
Aravind also encourages and facilitates the sharing and exchange of knowledge and resources. At any one time, at least 10 percent of Aravind’s staff will be visiting from other countries, and similarly 10 percent of their Indian staff will reside temporarily at other eye care centres around the world.
The Right to Sight
In association with ‘Vision 2020 – The Right to Sight’, a global initiative run by the International Agency of Prevention of Blindness, Aravind has so far set up 45 Vision Centres in Tamil Nadu in areas around their hospitals. These centres are permanent, each servicing up to 50,000 rural people. The Government of India plans to open 20,000 across the country to support the prevention of avoidable blindness.
Temporary Eye Camps target small communities that are located far away from Aravind hospitals or Vision Centres. They are a highly effective way to provide a screening service to people who would otherwise never receive diagnosis or treatment, and who could potentially face blindness. During 2009-2010, over 2,000 Eye Camps were run, screening over 450,000 patients and performing over 75,000 surgeries in Tamil Nadu.
Labour of Light
Aravind Eye Care Systems’ success is built on many facets of excellence, teamwork and compassion. But it isn’t just about great doctors, nurses and support staff. Quality care needs quality instruments! Without working instruments, Aravind’s work would not be possible.
Let me introduce Professor Srinivasan, a retired physics professor, who runs Aravind’s Instrument Maintenance Department based in Madurai. A friendly and determined man, he is a helpful and dedicated teacher with a love for ‘tinkering’ with electronics. He is lighting the way for his team of talented technicians who together provide an important service to Aravind and indirectly its patients.
Professor Srinivasan is keen on fostering talent within his department. All of his team members receive focused training and support to achieve their goals. He says that any one of his staff could walk out the door tomorrow and start their own electronic repair business.
Among this dedicated team of highly skilled technicians is Shri. Poornachandran. He has been working in the department since its inception. We are told that he can fix absolutely any electronic device.
Poornachandran is not only a highly sought after technician, he is also deaf. His achievements have been recognised externally, being awarded the Best Deaf Employee for 2008, from the Deaf Leaders (Deaf Empowerment Activities for Literacy, Education, Accessible Development, Employment, Rehabilitation and Sports). Poornachandran often accompanies Professor Srinivasan on his overseas trips where they provide training to technicians in other countries.
Another long term team member is Ganga, a Senior Technician who has worked in the laboratory for 13 years. She has continued to work while raising her children, something which is not common among women. An Engineering graduate, she is bright and enthusiastic and speaks fondly of Professor Srinivasan. She tells me he is a great boss, full of encouragement.
Professor Srinivasan’s development of talent doesn’t just stop with his laboratory in Madurai. He travels the world imparting his knowledge and training technicians, the majority of whom are from developing countries. He and his team have just delivered their 71st six-week course. Everyone in the department can give the course, it’s part of the team’s diversity. They train trainers so that they can in turn train other technicians.
Courses are usually delivered in English, but more recently, also in French and Spanish. Proud of his far reaching training programme, their laboratory features poster sized maps of India, Africa, South East Asia and the World to display their success. Each map is equipped with little lights to indicate the number of people who have been trained in various locations. There are red lights for men and green lights for women, with tallied numbers in the corner.
So far, Professor Srinivasan and his team have trained 281 men and 62 women around the world. Interestingly though, the gender scales have been tipped in Tamil Nadu, where they have trained 37 men and 54 women.
It seems the encouragement and support for women technicians is localised, but this is something that Professor Srinivasan would like to change. His laboratory is currently made up of 20 women and four men.
In line with Aravind’s support for women, Professor Srinivasan believes in giving young women opportunities to not only work, but to excel in a profession that is highly skilled. He has a theory that women are generally better technicians than men and he is keen to share his theory with everyone he meets.
Labour of Light
Professor Srinivasan and his team’s love of electronics combined with their keen interest to help the visually impaired, has led to the invention of some special devices. For example, the simple but effective ‘CCTV Aid / Reader’ is a magnifying gadget that enables people with low vision to read text, by projecting it on to their television or laptop. It costs around Rs. 3,000 each.
The ‘Running Lights’ device was simply created using Christmas tree lights placed on a long rectangular wooden board. The little lamps are turned on and off in succession, hence the term “running lights”. Children who have difficulty fixating on light, have benefited from the display, by watching and following the lights for 20-30 minutes three or fou r times a day.
Aravind: The Eyes Say it All
Vision is a gift. As I spent time wandering around Aravind Eye Care Systems, all I could think about was the essential role our eyes play in connecting us to other people. It may be a basic observation, but it’s one many of us take for granted. Eye sight helps us live our daily lives and enhances our experiences and relationships.
So, imagine not having your sight. Imagine agonizing over a loved one’s failing sight with no access to care, or not having enough money to seek help. In that moment I understood the magnitude of this organisation and how they are changing the lives of thousands of patients every week.
Aravind Eye Care Systems is inspiring from top to bottom. It is one of kind. It is a model of progressive and positive health care. It is a place full of compassionate people providing essential care to patients in need, while fulfilling a much bigger vision.