Dr. Prathap C Reddy, Founder chairman of Apollo Hospitals tells Ms.Sushila Ravindranath, Financial Express, that India will definitely become the world’s leading healthcare provider. But we have to decide whether this will happen in five or fifty years !
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I am waiting outside Dr Prathap C Reddy’s office to have a chat with him over coffee. I know he will offer me tender coconut water on a sweltering May afternoon in Chennai and not coffee. I have to walk across the Apollo hospital lobby to get to his room. The place is buzzing with people from all parts of India. There is a lot of order in the seeming chaos, with polite hospital staff guiding patients and visitors at every step. The founder chairman of the Apollo Hospital Group is talking to a senior government official from Nigeria. Dr Reddy is seeing him off and the gentleman is beaming. Reddy has assured him that he will help set up a kidney transplant unit in Nigeria.
Ever since his eldest daughter Preetha Reddy took over as managing director, Dr Reddy has focused on new projects. His enthusiasm and passion to make India the top destination for healthcare has not faded one bit. He is the pioneer of the healthcare industry in India. In 28 years, the single hospital he opened in Chennai has grown into a group of 53 hospitals in India and abroad. Apollo is the largest hospital chain in the country. The group’s turnover exceeds Rs 2,000 crore. Reddy is the man who infused professionalism in healthcare. He felt it was necessary to set up a corporate hospital in the country. It may be difficult to recall today, but 28 years ago hospitals were run only by charitable trusts or governments. The thought of setting up hospitals or healthcare facilities for profit was an unthinkable proposition in a socialist country. Reddy had to fight long, hard battles to fulfill his vision.
Dr Reddy asks me to come in. His daughter Suneeta Reddy, executive director, finance, who is also waiting to see her father graciously lets me go in. The doctor’s office has remained unchanged for years, neat and functional with a couple of interesting paintings. Sure enough, somebody brings in coconut water and biscuits. “Do you realize that lifestyle diseases are increasing day by day in our country?” the doctor asks me. He says the country will incur a bill of almost $300 billion by 2015 on fighting these ailments. This amount would be better spent in building healthcare infrastructure. He increasingly sees young people in their thirties being prone to heart attacks and heart diseases. “When I was a student, we used to see an odd case here and there. But not like this. In Asia, especially in India, this is going to take on pandemic proportions. How are we going to handle this?” he asks. Government must share the responsibility. Ban on smoking must be taken seriously. Schools and colleges must sensitize their students against obesity. So much can be done to prevent heart diseases.
There are many major challenges the country faces in providing healthcare, such as the acute shortage in the availability of hospital beds. With almost 2.5 million births per year, India needs an annual incremental addition to healthcare facilities equivalent to almost half of what a UK or a France or an Italy may need for their entire population. While India has made remarkable achievements in improving its health indices since Independence, we still lag behind other emerging economies like Brazil, Russia and China. We always compare ourselves with China. But China has 2.2 beds per thousand population and Russia as many as 9.7, while we are way behind at 0.7, compared to the global average of 2.6. We need to put up at least 1,00,000 beds a year. And investment for that is a huge amount. To reach developed country healthcare norms by 2027, India will require an astronomical one trillion dollars.
Which is why Reddy would rather put up new hospitals, increase the number of beds, than acquire existing hospitals for expansion. He tells me about the number of patients who come from the Northeast for treatment. “Didn’t you see them in the lobby?” he asks. “Why should they go through the expense and effort of coming all the way to Chennai? That is why we are putting up a hospital in the Northeast. We have to go to tier 2 and tier 3 cities.” But then it is not as easy as it sounds.
That is because another major problem exists: inadequate man power in healthcare. “We have to double the number of doctors, treble the number of nurses and quadruple the number of paramedics.” Reddy genuinely does not understand why healthcare cannot be given infrastructure status. The more hospitals one builds, the more steel and cement are consumed. Enormous employment opportunity exists. “The healthcare sector fulfils all the nine criteria set by the Dr C Rangarajan committee on infrastructure. But we are yet to get that recognition.”
Reddy is convinced that India will become the global healthcare destination. He says the world has no choice. Apollo has 16 beds for hip replacement. Six of them are occupied by Americans and Canadians. A surgery that used to cost $2,500 about 27 years ago can still be performed here for less than $3,000. “I can cross-subsidise my general ward patients from what we earn from international ones.” He also says that we have to decide whether we will be the leading healthcare provider to the world in the next five years or fifty years.
The transformation of health through technology truly excites Reddy. Telemedicine, consulting a doctor through your mobile, taking healthcare to rural areas through a rural network and using IT to enhance healthcare delivery are all areas Apollo is actively involved. “We keep innovating. To beat the traffic snarls in the cities, we have introduced the two-wheeler ambulance. The paramedics reach fast, attend to the patients and then wait for the ambulance.” He is equally committed to traditional methods to keep people healthy. “Yoga and meditation should be taught in schools and colleges.”
“We should now take a quantum leap in healthcare and not wait for a crisis to happen,” is his parting shot as I prepare to leave.