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Why this eye hospital is a case study at Harvard

April 06, 2009 15:55 IST

R V Ramani and Radha Ramani, a doctor couple in their 20s, were fired with the urge to change the world. The two decided to do this through their work at a private clinic in Coimbatore in the early-1970s.

A few years later, they converted the clinic into an eye hospital. Vision was the most palpable change they thought they could bring about, especially for those who had no means or knowledge to cure it.

That was the origin of Sankara Eye Care.

The hospital, which started with the objective of taking eye care to the doorsteps of the poor in rural Tamil Nadu, is now knocking at the doors of the rural poor in the heart of the country. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab will be the new addresses for the charity that treats 80 per cent of its patients free of charge.

R V Ramani recalls that they started their work with an eye bank, which now gets two pairs of donor eyes every day. According to him, their model of charging fee from only 20 per cent of the patients is sufficient to make each hospital self-sustaining in three to five years.

For a country that is home to one-fourth of the world's blind, Sankara is a model which is asking to be replicated.

The 80:20 model is not the only source of its sustenance. In the US, children are donating their pocket money towards eye surgery in these hospitals. It is $30 for a surgery, says Ramani.

About 200 couples in California are working to mobilise donations for Sankara Eye Foundation. Every year, the hospitals accomplish two million surgeries. The doctors get salaries which are comparable to those in other private hospitals, says the doctor.

The hospital will open its Punjab branch on the Ludhiana-Moga highway. The target group will the poor Bihari migrants. In Uttar Pradesh, it is yet to decide between Mathura and Varanasi, while in Rajasthan, the branch will be set up near Jaipur.

The existing nine hospitals are in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttarakhand.

According to Ramani, one hospital takes care of five to eight districts or an area within the 200-km radius.

Last week, Sankara received the best NGO award instituted by Resource Alliance and Nand and Khemka Foundation.

The name Sankara is derived from the Sankaracharyas of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, which inspired them to do some work for eye care, says Ramani.

The story of Ramanis' efforts cannot be told without mentioning the great gift of Dr V, as the late Dr G Venkatswamy, the founder of Aravind Eye Hospital, is called. The hospital started by the retired eye surgeon last year got the Bill Gates Award for Global Health. He was inspired by the temples in his town of Madurai to make the hospitals 'as soothing as the temples.'

The single largest eye cataract surgery provider under one roof in the world is today cited as a case study at Harvard Business School.

It depends on neither government aid nor donations. It runs its own business of eye equipment, even as it treats over 70 per cent of its patients free in five cities of Tamil Nadu. Founded in 1976 in a rented house with only 11 beds, it is now a network of hospitals performing 280,000 surgeries annually.

As the gap in eye care remains wide in the country, these efforts are providing a ray of hope for the ordinary Indians.

Sreelatha Menon in New Delhi
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