Aravind eye hospital

An incredibly inspirational trip.

I’m not sure that I have ever visited a more inspiring and impressive place.  Inspiring, because the Aravind Eye Hospital mission is “to eliminate needless blindness by providing appropriate, compassionate and high quality eye care to all” – and they actually do it, for thousands upon thousands of patients, most of whom can barely afford bus fare to the hospital, let alone cataract surgery.  Their task is incredible, because India has over a quarter of the world’s blind people, and much of that blindness are curable or preventable. Their vision is audacious, because they have 5 hospitals today and aim for 100 hospitals within 10 years. Read on! and check out the photo gallery.

Madurai, India. Aravind Eye Hospital.

Aravind is the most productive eye-care hospital in the world, in terms of the number of surgeries performed.  Their doctors perform a factor of 10 more surgeries than the average, because of the extremely efficient systems they have put in place. A doctor can do 30-40 cataract operations in 90 minutes; because of the efficient patient pipeline, the skills of the doctor are only needed 2-3 minutes per patient.

Impressive, too, because they give their services totally free to the poor – about two-thirds of their patients choose this option – and yet they are financially self-sustaining. Paying patients, in effect, subsidize the free patients.  They achieve their incredible performance through extreme efficiency and economies of scale.  Patients can choose the paying hospital, or not – the only difference is in the amenities and accommodations (a nice bed with private bath, for example, versus cots in a large shared sleeping area).

Aravind was founded by Dr. Venkataswamy, after he retired from government service, in 1976.  He was a skilled opthalmic surgeon despite having crippled hands. His vision was to provide eye care on a tremendous scale and at tremendously low cost, like McDonald’s does for food (his analogy), by adopting assembly-line approaches and with passionate attention to both quality and efficiency. His work was one of the inspirations for the trendy “bottom of the pyramid” model in economics.

For example, last year they did over 260,000 eye surgeries at their five hospitals; the majority of those surgeries were provided free. Aravind reached over 445,000 patients through free eye camps in outlying villages.    A patient who visits an eye camp and is diagnosed with cataracts, will immediately board an Aravind bus, eat and sleep at the hospital for 2-3 nights, receive top quality pre-op and post-op care, have cataract surgery, and ride a bus back home.  Totally free.

They recruit and train hundreds of village girls to work in the hospital, in every sort of job from housekeeper to records clerk to paramedic to instrument repair.  They run extensive training courses for these staff– and for staff from hospitals around the world who want to translate this system elsewhere.  They innovate with technology and constantly seek new ways to reach out into the community and connect patients with the services they need.

In my tour of the hospital I had a glimpse of how it works, including frequent use of information technology.  Computers are used to check in patients at each unit as they move through the hospital, and administrators collect real-time and historical statistics about the waiting-time and service-time distributions per unit, per doctor, and even for each of the medical-records clerks.  They use wireless PDAs to enter eye-prescription information, reducing transcription errors and shaving a few minutes off the time to process each patient. They use long-distance Wi-Fi links to provide high bandwidth connections to support telemedicine for their permanent village eye clinics.

Madurai, India. Aravind Eye Hospital.

I was lucky enough to meet nearly the entire leadership team, including Dr. Aravind, the second-generation leader and a skilled opthalmic surgeon himself.  They were very generous with their time and are genuinely interested in new ways to innovate, because they are passionately committed to Dr. V’s original vision of eliminating needless blindness.

Check out the photo page for more details.    [map]

I am thankful to Aravind staff for spending time with me, and for my colleague from Bangalore who suggested the trip, made the arrangements, and accompanied me to Aravind.


This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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