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Financial Express interviews Dr. Prathap C Reddy, Chairman, Apollo Hospitals Group.

Date of Interview: 01 Sep 2011

Apollo Founder Prathap C Reddy laid the foundation of healthcare for profit in the country. Building on the idea, today there are hundreds of world-class hospitals in India. But BV Mahalakshmi & Sudhir Chowdhary, Financial Express, discover that the 79-year-old's zeal is nowhere diminished, and he has greater plans in the pipeline.

Featured Interview :

FE Special - Story, Posted: Friday, Aug 26, 2011.

After the first human heart transplant operation in December 1967, South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard became an international superstar overnight and was celebrated around the world for his daring accomplishment. Dr Prathap Chandra Reddy, the 79-year-old executive-chairman of the Rs.2,605-crore Apollo Hospitals Enterprises and architect of modern healthcare in India, has a bit of Barnard in him. Like the South African medical genius who got his education in the US and subsequently returned to the rainbow country, Reddy also left a flourishing practice in the US and opted to return to his roots when in 1979 he lost a patient who could not make it to Texas for an open heart surgery. "Even before this, I was restless on account of my father's words: 'Of what use is your expertise if your country does not benefit from it'," he recollects.

And so, in the death of a patient was born the idea of a corporate chain of hospitals in the country-the Apollo Hospitals Group. The name Apollo, the Greek god of healing, was suggested by his daughter. The new hospital attracted the best medical talent, including eminent non-resident Indian doctors who returned to India from hospitals in the US and UK. This prompted then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to remark, "Dr Reddy, you have reversed the brain drain and brought talent back to India."

Reddy recalls the thought prevailing in his mind during the early 1980s, "The dream of creating world-class medical facilities in India spurred me to set up Apollo Hospital in Chennai in 1983 at a time when private healthcare institutions were virtually unknown in our country. I vehemently followed the three Ps-purity, patience and persistence," though he also admits rather sheepishly, "My brother was more intelligent and I was the dullest in the family."

Probe him further on his formative years and Reddy gets candid. "I was a wastrel when I was young. Having grown up with cousins, I was also very naughty and even in college, I kept company with the naughty gang. I was also actively involved in cultural activities," Reddy laughs. But he still topped in the university. He recalls yet another nostalgic moment: "When I cleared my medical entrance examination, my father could not comprehend my achievement and I had to explain it to him."

But he is equally quick to admit to his mistakes. "I failed in the IT sector. I lost huge sums of money in the US and had to close down my IT company in Chennai. However, I have no regrets. Even during the formative year of Apollo, analysts, investors, shareholders and common people used to ask me a typical question: 'who is this guy who wants to make money out of sickness?' But this did not deter me."

Cut to the present day. Starting from a 150-bed hospital in Chennai, the Apollo Group has grown to a strength of over 8,500 beds across 46 hospitals that are owned, managed or franchised. Six of them are outside India in Mauritius, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Nigeria and Yemen. Apollo is now the world's third-largest and Asia's largest healthcare provider in the private sector. Its hospitals have served over 19 million patients from 55 countries. When asked about the spirit behind the creation of Apollo, Reddy gets philosophical: "I come from a joint family and I have tried to incorporate that spirit in the Apollo Group, where everyone works together like a family."

Without any doubt, Reddy has revolutionised the healthcare scenario of India and inspired others to follow suit. Today, India has over 750 corporate hospitals. Reddy has also undertaken pioneering work in bringing about institutional changes in the private healthcare infrastructure by establishing Apollo institutes for post-graduate medical and nursing education, hospital administration, physiotherapy, clinical research and a large number of paramedical programmes. With the setting up of Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation, Health Super Hiway, Apollo DKV Insurance Co and Apollo Reach Hospitals, the Apollo Group is today a leading provider of healthcare solutions.

In the year gone by, Apollo has broken new grounds as well, from providing eastern India's first dedicated bone marrow transplant unit, to providing a unique mobile healthcare solution in collaboration with Aircel (m-health) to bringing south Asia's first-of-its-kind, full-field mammography system to India.

Bringing about a paradigm shift, Reddy's initiatives have forced global healthcare companies also to look at India as an emerging and attractive opportunity. So when you mention US President Barack Obama's statement about India being a cheap healthcare destination, Reddy scoffs, "I am not perturbed by this. In the Sixties and Seventies, people used to travel to the US for super-specialties, but now we can become 'super America' of healthcare."

Next, he wants to integrate healthcare into the digital world. "I want to create virtual Apollo centres, through which healthcare is available anytime, anywhere," he says. "My emphasis is on tele medicine, the facility to connect any location in the country to a specialised healthcare centre through satellite link-ups. This would be of immense benefit to areas that lack credible healthcare infrastructure and would provide much needed thrust to rural healthcare," he adds.

Reddy is also looking at re-organisation of the entire Apollo Group. "We plan to set up centres of excellence in areas of cardiology, oncology, neurology and orthopaedics to get a dominant share in these areas. With the rejig, we are aiming for a five-fold increase in revenues in the next five years," he reveals. As of now, about 30% of Apollo Group's revenues come from cardiology; 20% from oncology and the rest is divided among other categories.

The organisational revamp is part of the Rs.3,000-crore expansion announced recently. "We are looking to add about 4,000 beds in the country by the year 2014. To part finance this revamp programme, we are negotiating with private equity investors based out of London, Hong Kong and New York. Till date, we have invested Rs.1,800 crore for the first phase of expansion. We want to become an end-to-end service provider in the healthcare sector, bridging colleges, hospitals and R&D," he says.

Big dreams, but then Apollo's founder has the energy and zeal to realise them all.

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