Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion

Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion

by Pavithra K. Mehta, Suchitra Shenoy


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Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion by Pavithra K. Mehta, Suchitra Shenoy

When a crippling disease shattered his lifelong ambition, Dr. V (Venkataswamy) chose an impossible new dream: to cure the world of blindness. The tiny clinic he founded in India defied conventional business logic and is now the largest provider of eye care on the planet.

At Aravind, patients choose whether to pay or not. Millions are treated for free, yet the organization remains stunningly self-reliant. Serving everyone from penniless farmers to the president, it delivers world-class outcomes at less than a hundredth of what similar services cost in advanced nations. Its model is emulated by organizations everywhere from Rwanda to San Francisco.

Infinite Vision uncovers the radical principles behind Aravind’s baffling success. Charged with profound insights and stories, it draws readers to the heart of Dr. V’s selfless vision, proving how choices that seem quixotic can, when executed with compassion and integrity, yield incredible results—results that can light the eyes of millions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781605099798
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 11/07/2011
Series: Bk Business Series
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 559,116
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Pavithra K. Mehta is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. She is a board member of the Aravind Eye Foundation and CharityFocus and coeditor of the latter’s inspirational news service, DailyGood. Dr. V. is her granduncle.
Suchitra Shenoy has more than a decade of experience in the social sector, most recently at the Monitor Group, where she was a founding member of Monitor Inclusive Markets.

Read an Excerpt


How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion
By Pavithra K. Mehta Suchitra Shenoy

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 CharityFocus, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60509-979-8

Chapter One


Built in the shape of a lotus, Madurai is one of the oldest cities of South India. Home to a million people, it is a dense cultural center, famed for its lofty poetry, heady jasmine, and legendary goddess ruler, Meenakshi. At the heart of Madurai lies the massive complex of the Meenakshi Amman temple, whose origins are believed to trace back as far as 6 BC. The temperamental river Vaigai, which alternates between trickle and monsoon flood, divides the city in two. On one side rise the distant towers of the temple, and on the other is a street that has gradually been taken over by an expanding empire for eye care.

On this spring morning the banana man's cart, festooned with garlands of his yellow fruit, is parked in its customary place. A woman slaps laundry against a stone block on the sidewalk, and clotheslines slung from crowded balconies flutter in the breeze. A beanpole of a man weaves through traffic on a bicycle, holding a cell phone to his ear. Straight ahead, a bus has been held up by a herd of buffalos. Road dividers and traffic lights make a stab at order, but there are cheerful violations everywhere.

This is not an easy country to regulate, not its streets and certainly not its health care. Lawsuits have not deeply permeated India's medical profession, and the kind of stringent mandates and regulations that govern Western medicine are often absent or ill enforced. It is the dawn of the 21st century, and health insurance for the masses is only beginning to emerge here. The vast majority of patients pay out of pocket for private care or seek subsidized service in government hospitals that are overcrowded, understaffed, and rife with serious performance issues. The road to care can be hazardous in such an environment. But there are exceptions.

Up ahead, a frail, elderly woman sits sidesaddle on a scooter behind her son. A green post-surgery patch over her left eye gives her an unexpected rakish air. On this street, such pirate-patients are common—they are evidence that a small miracle of sight has recently occurred. The scooter turns the corner at 1 Anna Nagar, where a pale blue five-story building rises behind a stone wall. Brass letters on black granite announce "Aravind Eye Hospital." The wrought iron gates bearing a flowerlike symbol are open, and the scooter carrying the woman with the green eye patch drives in. Today she will be one of the 7,500 patients that Aravind's network of care examines on a daily basis.

According to the World Health Organization's estimates, 39 million people in the world are blind, 80 percent of them needlessly so. "Needless blindness" is a curious turn of phrase you can't escape at Aravind. It refers to the urgent fact that some forms of blindness are entirely within our power to treat or prevent. Cataract is a prime example. A word whose origins lie in the Greek word for "waterfall," it refers to the clouding of the eye's lens. Painless but progressive, if left untreated, cataract leads from blurred vision to total blindness. A simple one-time operation can restore sight, but the sobering fact is that cataract still accounts for more than 60 percent of blindness in India.

* * *

Dr. V stands in the hallway, quietly observing the registration queue. Patients take no notice of the elderly man with the close-cropped white hair and walking stick. The founder of Aravind is easily overlooked in a crowd. He is a man of unremarkable height and weight, with stooped shoulders and a serious face. Today he is wearing a wrinkled white shirt and no doctor's coat or badge. But those gnarled fingers are unmistakable. On his right hand is a ring that bears the same symbol as the one on the hospital gates. All the founding members of Aravind wear this ring; it is a reminder of a particular spiritual inspiration.

Dr. V bends down slowly, and with difficulty. Two nurses rush forward but are too late. He picks up a discarded candy wrapper (a vintage practice of his), scans the now-spotless floor, and then heads back toward his office.

Aravind was founded by a small band of siblings. Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, known to much of the world as Dr. V, was the eldest of five children, and after the early death of their father, he took on the responsibility of educating the others, guiding their careers, and arranging their marriages (as is still the custom in much of India). He himself chose to live a life of celibacy, devoting everything to his family and to the service of the sightless.

In 1976, he asked his siblings (and their spouses) to join him in running a tiny eye clinic and to treat patients who could not afford to pay them for free. There was no graceful way to refuse. To say it grew from there is an understatement. The Aravind Eye Care System is now the largest provider of eye surgeries in the world. By 2010, it was seeing more than 2.5 million patients and performing 300,000 surgeries a year. The family's involvement spiraled out, and the employee roster at Aravind now resembles the guest list of a typical Indian wedding.

In the office next door to Dr. V's sits one of his nephews, a man whose grade school report cards Dr. V inspected three decades ago. "If somebody is blind, that's our problem," says Dr. Aravind Srinivasan. "It doesn't matter whether they have money or not. The problem is ours." This charismatic 30-something man is the sole surgeon-MBA in the organization he shares a name with. "Our view of the world is very different because of Dr. V," he continues. "Over time, he has built a conviction in us that serving the poor is good. That giving most of your services away for free is good." He breaks into a boyish grin. "Basically, he has corrupted our view of the world."

Dr. Aravind heads out the door of his office. He is the administrator of the hospital but still operates three mornings a week and cannot be late; punctuality is a religion here. It is 7:30 a.m., and the corridors, waiting rooms, and registration counters are alive with ordered activity. Thirty-three operating theaters across Aravind's five hospitals (each located in different cities and small towns of Tamil Nadu) are already in full swing. By this afternoon, a thousand patients, rich and poor, will have received surgery across the system. "Our focus is on human welfare," says Dr. V. "If a man can't pay me, it doesn't matter. He will give later if he can."

In the early 1990s, a visitor with floppy gray hair walked into Aravind. At the counter he took out a checkbook, but was politely informed that checks were not accepted and he would need to pay in cash. Having no cash on him, he inquired whether it was possible to be treated in Aravind's free section. Yes, it was. Minutes later, the director of Aravind received a frantic phone call. It was from the visitor's security team, who had lost track of him in the corridors. As the story goes, Dr. Abdul Kalam was located in the free division of the hospital, thrilled with the quality of care he had just received. Kalam went on to become the president of India and a dear friend of the organization. And this episode became one of Aravind's legends. It illustrates the unusual degree of choice—and universal high-quality treatment—accorded to patients here.

Thulsi Ravilla, a nephew of Dr. V's by marriage and the organization's very first managerial hire, presents another startling facet of the organization. "The National Health Service for the United Kingdom does a little over half a million eye surgeries annually; Aravind does roughly 300,000," he says. That a single organization in a developing country does about 50 percent of the ophthalmic surgical volume of one of the world's most advanced nations is a compelling fact, but not the punch line. Thulsi's next data point typically drops jaws: Aravind does this at less than 1 percent of Britain's costs. The latter's National Health Service spends 1.6 billion pounds annually on eye care delivery against Aravind's modest 13.8 million pounds. "The reasons go beyond a simplistic 'Britain isn't India,' explanation," says Thulsi. While external factors like regional economies, regulations, and cultural expectations are valid differences between East and West, Thulsi maintains that myriad other aspects feed into the numbers and must be taken into account. Things like efficiency, clinical processes, and cost-control measures. "Decoding all this can bring answers to most developed countries," he says.

"High volume, high quality, and affordable cost" is the tri-part mantra of the Aravind model. It can seem disappointingly simplistic in the beginning. Provide good service to enough people, and you can keep your prices low and still make a profit. But the real genius of the Aravind model lies in the mindset behind it, the well-crafted processes and all the built-in interdependencies.

How do you create a system that thrives on generosity, one that actually benefits from serving those most in need? How do you engineer an organization that demonstrates repeatedly that high-quality surgical outcomes can be fostered, not threatened, by high volume; and how do you, in the developing-world context, link high quality with affordability—or more radically still, with "free"? The answers to these questions weave together as inextricable threads in the fabric of Aravind. Each influences, and is affected by, the others. "Fundamentally, it's not just numbers that we are chasing. There is a synergy between quality, cost, and the demand for services," says Thulsi.

The first glimpse of that synergy came from a very unlikely place.

* * *

No one knows when Dr. V first came up with the delicious non sequitur that linked eye care service delivery with hamburgers, but his fascination with the golden arches of McDonald's is part of Aravind lore now. Sidestepping the notoriety of the world's most successful fast-food chain and the controversies over its public health impact, Dr. V saw in McDonald's the power of standardization, product recognition, accessibility, and scale. "Just as fast food is affordable to many lower-middle-class families in the West, in developing countries we can organize to provide affordable cataract operations," he declared in an interview in the late 1980s. Even close colleagues found his "hamburger talk" a little absurd. But Dr. V's outlandish references were vindicated in the late '90s by Regina Herzlinger, one of America's leading advocates for health care reform. In her book Market-Driven Health Care, Herzlinger analyzed the McDonald's Corporation's service system. Why McDonald's? "Because week after week, year after year, it demonstrates how to attain exactly the qualities that the healthcare system needs—consistency, reliability, clear standards, and low costs—in each of its 20,000 restaurants all around the world."

Following the 11-bed clinic Dr. V opened in 1976 came a hospital with 600 beds in 1981. Aravind's second and third hospitals were opened in 1984 and 1988. By the first decade of the new millennium, there were three more Aravind Eye Hospitals across the state of Tamil Nadu, totaling more than 3,200 beds. Dr. V launched all of this starting with a grand total of just five ophthalmologists by his side.

In order to amplify each surgeon's impact and reach the most people in need, he brought in assembly-line techniques and engineered hospital systems that eventually allowed his doctors to perform close to five times more surgeries than the national average. An intensively trained cadre of paraprofessionals, or midlevel ophthalmic personnel (Aravind's designation for them) was also key to making this possible. The two-year training program they undergo has been accredited by the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology in the United States (JCAHPO).

A routine eye checkup at Aravind entails registration, basic vision testing, a preliminary doctor's examination, measurement of ocular pressure, pupil dilation, and a final examination. If surgery is recommended, detailed counseling takes place to ensure that the patient fully understands the process. Typically an ophthalmologist would perform the bulk of these duties. But at Aravind the entire stream of patient-centric activities, from entry to discharge, is broken up into sets of discrete tasks. Aravind's army of paraprofessionals performs most of these tasks (except for the preliminary exam and the final diagnosis, which are done by doctors). This group includes nurses, counselors, refractionists, and ophthalmic technicians, among a dozen different subcadres, each specialized in a clearly defined set of recurring duties.

A similar role designation is seen in Aravind's operating rooms and postoperative wards. The result is a system that powerfully maximizes the time and skill of Aravind's surgeons. Everything is geared to allow these doctors to focus almost exclusively on diagnosing patients and performing operations. In this way, with less than 1 percent of the country's ophthalmic power, Aravind is able to perform 5 percent of all eye care procedures in India.

A mindset geared toward constant process innovation also contributes to this record-breaking efficiency. From Aravind's earliest years, Dr. V urged his team to reexamine their systems for unnecessary delays and avoidable irregularities, and to find key leverage points in their process where small shifts could yield a significant impact. His journal entries across the decades reflect these preoccupations.

Dr. V has accumulated close to 100 journals over his lifetime. Their yellowing pages carry the forgettable details of various conferences, research papers, projects, hospital inventory, and meticulous accounts. But among these prosaic notes are meditations on life's purpose, frank self-assessments, and questions—copious questions. Inquiry is a deep part of his nature, and Dr. V's private catechism embraces both abiding mysteries and transient practical concerns. In a founding-year entry from 1976, he wrote: How to train nurses for post-op dressing. How many tables do we need to operate 30 patients a week. Do we have enough operating sets. Can we start operating earlier in the day. What if we had another facility.

It is striking that in the tens of thousands of journal entries Dr. V has penned over the decades, he almost never uses question marks—as if to him, framing the right question is in itself an answer of sorts.

* * *

The hospital-as-factory mindset can raise logical objections in the uninitiated, but the reality is that Aravind's approach serves patient interests in multiple ways. The streamlined workflow increases efficiency, which means less waiting time. Task repetition creates competence, which means better clinical outcomes. And employing skilled paraprofessionals for steps that do not require a doctor's expertise not only facilitates individualized attention but also reduces prices. All three factors working in conjunction contribute to scale and affordability while improving patient experience and the quality of care.

It is early 2004, and Dr. V is talking with two guests from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. One of the visitors remarks that in the United Kingdom, until recently, the wait time for cataract surgery was often as long as two years. "How long do patients have to wait here?" she asks. Dr. V's response is gleeful: "Here we don't give them a chance to wait." When a patient at Aravind is advised to have surgery, the system is prepared to admit him or her the same day and operate the very next.

Aravind deliberately keeps the fees for its paid services low. For those who elect to pay, the consultation fee is roughly $1, and the various surgery prices are capped at local market rates. In this something- for-everyone approach, patients who decide to pay for cataract surgery choose from a tiered range of packages. Midrange prices start at about $110, while high-end packages can go up to $1,000. Service differentiation occurs primarily in terms of accommodation add-ons (air conditioning, attached bath, an extra bed for a family member, etc.) and choice from a range of surgical techniques and ophthalmic implants. Patients who opt for free or minimal-payment surgery pay between $0 and $17. They are housed in dormitories and receive standard surgery and ophthalmic implants. Clinical outcomes are similar whether or not a patient pays.


Excerpted from INFINITE VISION by Pavithra K. Mehta Suchitra Shenoy Copyright © 2011 by CharityFocus, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Power and Paradox of Aravind

Part I: The 5-Minute $15 Cure: On Efficiency and Compassion
Chapter 1: Of Burgers and Blindness
Chapter 2: When Free is Not Enough
Chapter 3: This Case Won’t Fly

Part II : Do The Work, Money Will Follow: On Sustainability and Selflessness
Chapter 4: An Eye Doctor By Sheer Accident
Chapter 5: Get Less, Do More
Chapter 6: The Power of Creative Constraints
Chapter 7: You Don’t Find People, You Build Them
Chapter 8: The Question of the Greedy Doctor

Part III: A Vast Surrender: On Innovation & Inner Transformation
Chapter 9: Humankind is a Work-in-Progress
Chapter 10: Dr. V’s Practices for a Perfect Vision
Chapter 11: Manufacturing a Revolution
Chapter 12: Maximize Service Not Profit
Chapter 13: The Flip Side of a Visionary

Part IV : Training Your Competition: On Replication and Self-Awareness
Chapter 14: If We Can Do it So Can You
Chapter 15: Aravind Is Like Kilimanjaro
Chapter 16: Business, Politics and Prahalad’s Dare
Chapter 17: Aravind in America

Part V : How Do You Retire A Saint?: On Change and Integrity
Chapter 18: Same Same but Different
Chapter 19: All Will Pass from the Earth
Chapter 20: The Bottom is Moving Up
Chapter 21: A Place to Practice Truth
Epilogue: Death’s Question
Name Index
About the Authors
Connecting the Aravind's Work

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Infinite Vision 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
JohninColorado More than 1 year ago
Having had the opportunity to know members of the Aravind Eye Care System I think the authors are "spot on" in capturing the wisdom and spirit of these great people. Dr. V had a vision that was only achieved with the dedication and sacrifice of his family and staff. The knowledge and teaching that comes from the Aravind Model of compassionate health care has made a difference in millions of lives globally. I highly recommend this book to all my friends and associates as their have to next read. World Class Organization, World Class Vision Care, World Class Model.