BANGALORE — The southern Indian city of Bangalore is known as “India’s Silicon Valley.” It is also home to four specialized medical centers run by Devi Prasad Shetty’s Narayana Health Group of Hospitals.
The facilities are not reserved for Bangalore’s high-tech elite, however, they mostly serve the city’s least privileged. The wards are full of tanned laborers, farmers and sari-clad mothers, with children in tow.
Some 30 years ago, when he was a budding, British-trained heart surgeon working in the eastern city of Kolkata, Shetty received a momentous phone call. “There is a patient we want you to treat,” said the voice on the line. “Meeting her will definitely change your life.” The voice belonged to an aide to Mother Teresa.
“I know why God sent you here… when God created babies with heart problems, he was preoccupied then realized that to fix them you must be sent,” Mother Teresa whispered to Shetty after he operated on her. Her words laid out the course of his life from that point on.
Henry Ford’s operating room
Cardiac procedures are said to be among the most difficult operations, but Narayana hospitals charge 150,000 rupees ($2,500), half what the typical Indian hospital charges. Shetty hopes to bring the cost down further to around 50,000 rupees over the next seven to 10 years.
Shetty is called the Henry Ford of heart surgery and the comparison is apt. Cars were a luxury item for the affluent until Ford brought them within the reach of the average worker through mass production. Shetty wants to apply the same principle to make heart surgery much cheaper.
At the Bangalore hospital that handles cardiac patients, more than 30 surgeons work in shifts from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., six days a week, in one of 23 operating rooms. They typically perform 25-30 procedures a day — doing bypasses and removing arterial blockages. The surgeons receive less than half the pay of their counterparts at other hospitals. But they are on a mission to save as many lives as possible — and to hone their skills by performing many operations.
Surgeons and nurses wear disposable plastic scrubs made by a local start-up that cost 900 rupees apiece. Patients recover in shared rooms. In the pediatric section, physicians and nurses busily check on children with scars from incisions.
Ounce of prevention
In addition to offering low-cost care, Narayana Health offers insurance, which has also fueled its growth. The group began offering insurance about a decade ago, after a local dairy producers association asked it to sponsor the association’s promotion of low-fat milk, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease. Shetty was troubled by the high cost of cardiac procedures and the lack of patient access outside large cities. Mother Teresa’s words, “The hands that serve are more sacred than lips that pray,” rang in his ears.
As a condition for becoming a sponsor, Narayana Health proposed launching an insurance plan for the association’s members. The idea was also endorsed by the state of Karnataka and the scheme took off.
Today, Narayana Health insures 3 million people, who pay monthly premiums of 10-12 rupees, an amount even low-income farmers can afford. Economies of scale allow the group to deliver high-quality health care at a low cost to each member, Shetty said.
He is confident Narayana Health can revolutionize insurance in India. Hopes are high the company can apply the model in the Middle East and Africa. But Shetty’s ambitions do not stop there. He wants to offer insurance to low-income earners in industrialized countries, who sometimes lack access to quality health care due to cash-strapped state-run systems and growing income disparities.
Narayana Health in February opened a hospital in the Cayman Islands, a British territory in the Caribbean. It chose the location because of its low-cost, high-quality service and proximity to the U.S., where many people suffer from heart disease.
Now in his 60s, Shetty still performs at least one or two surgeries a day and sees 60-80 patients.
“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together.” The words of Ratan Tata, the former leader of Tata Group, are displayed in the hospital and always guide Shetty.
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