Bangalore is poised to become a global healthcare destination, largely due to Dr Devi Prasad Shetty, chairman, Narayana Hrudayalaya
Bangalore: Mention Bangalore, and one thinks of information technology. But the Garden City is making its strides in other industries as well. The reason these lucrative sectors are not given due acknowledgement is because they are not so high profile.
Quietly, but quite significantly, the city has become the hub of heart medicine and treatment, and there is one person Bangalore has to thank for putting the city on the world's medical map. It is Dr Devi Prasad Shetty.
Like most achievers, Shetty has had a humble beginning. He was educated and trained in general surgery at the Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore (1982). He attained basic training in cardiac surgery at the West Midlands Cardiothoracic Rotation Programme.
This was followed by his appointment at the Guy's Hospital London (cardiothoracic unit) between 1983 and 1989. In 1989 Shetty and his team set up a 140-bed hospital, Research Institute, in Kolkata.
It is in Kolkata that he hit big time and began making the country sit up and take notice of his work. He also has the distinction of being Mother Teresa's doctor and treated her every time when she fell sick, especially before she breathed her last. But he was never the one to rest on his laurels.
In 1997 he and his team set up the Manipal Heart Foundation - a 450-bed heart operation facility. A recent addition to his list of accomplishments is the Rabindranath Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences, a full-fledged cardiac hospital built on 5 acres of land in Kolkata.
But, now, Bangalore can boast of his own brainchild, the Narayana Hrudayalaya, a world-renowned facility for heart treatment, which is famous in many other countries. In fact, patients from neighbouring countries and even developed countries come to the facility for his expert treatment.
His list of achievements is incredible, to say the least. He is the first heart surgeon in India to venture into neonatal open-heart surgery. He performed the first open-heart surgery in the world to close a hole in the heart with the help of a microchip camera. He used an artificial heart for the first time in India and performed the first surgery in India using the blood vessels of the stomach to bypass the blocked arteries of the heart.
The list is, in fact, endless. He also performed Asia's first dynamic cardiomyoplasty operation. Shetty's another claim to fame is his effort in reducing the cost of heart operations. The package pricing system devised by him has made heart surgery affordable to the common man. He is also responsible for introducing the concept of assembly-line heart surgery, which aims at reducing the cost of surgery and achieving zero mortality.
Everyone will agree that his greatest achievement has been his work with children. He operates free for kids below 12, and of his 13,000 operations in a career spanning 16 years, over 5,000 operations were on children. For him, compassion is the biggest thing in life. He has gone on record many times to say that, "If I am given a choice I would like to treat only poor patients. But unfortunately the economic reality does not allow me to do that."
Obviously, his personal mission is glaring clear - to make cardiac surgery affordable by creating a chain of heart hospitals in every state in India to serve the working class. "There are clever people; some people are cleverer than me. I like to associate with people cleverer than me."
He won another feather in his already full cap when his hospital was appointed as the tele-medicine centre by some countries. With this, Narayana Hrudayalaya is the biggest tele-medicine centre in the world, catering to some 19 countries, and exporting its expertise to wherever it is required. The hospital has made full use of Bangalore's biggest asset, IT, in making heart treatment reachable and technologically viable.
But why Bangalore? "This is where there is a lot of potential and expertise. I felt I had to give back something." Well, what can Bangaloreans say, except 'Carry on doctor, we are behind you every inch of the way.'
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
What is your inspiration for setting up Narayana Hrudayalaya?
Initially, I had worked in a government hospital, which gave me a true exposure to healthcare scenario in India. I realise that to make a difference in healthcare, we have to address the problems of poor people and middle-class families in the country. Rich families can always help themselves.
How do you compare the working experience in India with other developed nations?
The whole concept of working in the country is to create institutions that will offer healthcare to the masses. Initially we started with heart and we worked towards the heart for 12 years. We are focusing on other specialities now while continuing to focus on heart. We have started an eye hospital in Kolkata in association with Shankar Netralaya. Our target is within next two years, we would like that hospital to be one of the largest hospitals in Asia. We are working in that direction.
We are in the process of setting up a croma centre in association with Neurosurgeon and Orthopaedic Hospital, Kolkata. Similarly, we started a dialyses centre. We are getting into other medical special areas. Our target is to create health insurance for masses, which we launched in association with Yeshaswini. Our insurance has covered 1.7 million farmers in the country. This is the Yeshaswini rural health insurance scheme, the first of its kind in the country. Using Yeshaswini registration cards, members can go to any of the 65 hospitals selected by Narayana Hrudayalaya Trust (NHT) for free check-ups and surgeries.
Do you think Bangalore will become a global healthcare destination?
Yes, I think so. For healthcare there are no boundaries. People will travel across the boundaries in search of affordable and qualitative healthcare. We are just seeing the glimpses of things in the offing.
To build a high-technology hospital, Bangalore is an ideal place. And healthcare is an interaction between man and machine. Man behind the machine is very important; it is a very scarce commodity. He is the specialist who can do the procedures. These procedures are done by some of the specialists who are working in some of the best hospitals in the world. They are looking at Bangalore, the city that can fulfil these conditions.
What are the advantages India have?
Healthcare is today offered by people with skills; they include doctors, nurses and technicians. A major chunk of money in healthcare in the US goes towards this category. India produces the largest number of doctors, nurses and medical technicians in the world. They are the pillars of the healthcare delivery system. And we have them in abundance. What we did not have earlier was the money to build institutions to get equipment, which we have now. It is matter of time that we build world-class hospitals. Bangalore still has a long way to go in wooing patients from abroad. Mind you, Karnataka produces around 3,000 doctors every year.
Do you foresee any challenges?
Certainly. But challenges are not because we can deliver, but because of the protectionist mechanism of every country, which wants to protect its own doctors and their practices. Ultimately economic realities prevail over everything else. We should not worry about America and Europe; ignore those markets. They can look after themselves. We should concentrate on Asia and other African countries which are as developed as us. We should help them primarily as service.
In the US healthcare is run like a business, while in the UK it is a service. How do you describe healthcare in India?
Any aspect that services the mankind will change according to social circumstances. In our lifetime, it has to remain as a charity; that too a well-run charity. When the effluence sustains, people can afford to pay themselves. Maybe in the future, it can run like a business. As of today the country is not ready to run healthcare like a business.
Many people say you are an expert in setting up heart hospitals.
I do not call myself an expert. We have a very strong team of people who are very good in creating and managing things. I am one among the team. After returning from England in 1989, I established BM Birla Heart Research Centre in Kolkata for the Birla families. Later I set up the Manipal Heart Foundation in Bangalore  for the Manipal Trust. After that we decided to do things on our own. The Ravindranath Tagore International Institute of Cardiological Sciences in Kolkata  and Narayana Hrudayalaya are our own organisations.
The Indian government has announced sops for the healthcare industry in the last budget. Do you think these sops will help benefit India to make it a global healthcare destination?
Right now we are only getting bread and jam. The government has to understand that the healthcare industry is the basic requirement offered by the constitution for its citizens. The constitution says it is the responsibility of the government to offer free healthcare to every citizen of the country. As of now - forget offering free healthcare - it is trying to make money out of it. Recently I did a healthwale implantation for a slum-dweller. His kith and kin borrowed and begged money for the treatment. Out of the Rs 25,000 they collected Rs 5,000 went to the government as tax.
What was your initial response when a Pakistani child was operated upon successfully?
We have operated upon a huge number of patients every day, out of which 30 per cent are foreigners. They come from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mauritius, the Middle East and even from African nations. I am still puzzled why this baby was given a lot of media attention, though I know she came by the first [renewed] bus service between Lahore and Delhi. I am glad that everything went on well. And I am looking for similar events in the future.