A group of visiting doctors have assembled for lunch. They’ve come from different places—Birmingham to Dubai—to conduct the Fellowship of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons exam at LV Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI), which it has been hosting for close to two decades in Hyderabad. After some perfunctory exchanges, the conversation rests on the bow tie. How could it not? The founder of LVPEI, Dr GN Rao, fell for it, discarding the regular silk tie after a glib salesman in New York many years ago sold him the glamour of bowknots. No, not the clip-ons; the self-tie ones. “These doctors will not know how to tie knots, they are not surgeons,” Rao responded in mirth to a Syrian-born, now Dubai-based, ophthalmic surgeon who was also wearing a bow tie. The non-surgeons in the room laughed it away with “We don’t have time for tying knots.”
It doesn’t take Rao much time—less than 15 seconds since he obliged me with a demo—to knot a bow tie. It hasn’t taken him too long either to build one of the largest and finest eye care centres in the world—merely three decades. His network of 163 centres treats about 2 million patients every year, half of whom for free, whatever may be the disease. The absolute numbers in a country of India’s size are always staggering but nothing hits the health index harder than the ill-publicised fact that nearly 60% of eye care in India is in the nonprofit sector.
A few resources-rich individuals have offered him carte blanche to replicate LVPEI in other parts of India. Like this entrepreneur from Mumbai, one of India’s wealthiest persons, who wanted to donate a replica of the Hyderabad centre to his city, which would have cost him nearly Rs 250 crore in an outright donation. Or this young political leader from Delhi who led a ‘diffused group’ of people who wanted an LVPEI in the North. The Board at LVPEI left it to Rao. And Rao said, “Thanks, but no thanks. We can help you but not set it up ourselves because it’ll take away the focus from the care of the neglected population.” To various private equity investors, he says, “We only take one kind of money: donation.”
Expansion on the tech side is, though, welcome. In December 2016, it became one of the partners in Microsoft Intelligent Network for Eyecare (MINE) along with eye care centres in the US, Brazil, Australia and Kenya to use artificial intelligence for eliminating avoidable blindness. A new threat is emerging from modern lifestyle, and doctors believe the world is staring at a myopia epidemic.
I went to Rao, who is 71, arguably India’s most celebrated ophthalmologist today, with some simple questions: Why is eye care concentrated among the nonprofits and why hasn’t this model extended to other therapeutic areas like cardiac, cancer, general medicine…?