BOSTON (Reuters) - An Indian group that performs 300,000 free or subsidized eye surgeries a year for the poor will receive the world’s largest humanitarian prize, jurors said on Friday.
Aravind Eye Care System, the world’s largest eye care provider, was chosen for the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, awarded annually to an organization that does extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering.
The award will be presented April 20 in Redwood City, California. Aravind was one of almost 200 nominees for the prize, awarded each year since 1996 by the Hilton Foundation established by the late hotelier to help the world’s poor.
Past winners include the medical group Doctors without Borders; Heifer International, an agency that works to end world hunger; and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.
Aravind, founded in 1976 by the late Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, operates five hospitals in India backed by a network of clinics, manages four others, and has research laboratories, a training center and a manufacturing center.
“Aravind’s is a remarkable enterprise,” Steven Hilton, CEO of the Hilton Foundation, told Reuters. “The impact of what they do is so broad - all with 70 percent of patients receiving the surgeries free or at very low cost.”
Most of the world’s estimated 45 million blind are in the developing world and some 12 million are in India.
“Over 80 percent of the developing world’s blindness and impaired vision is needless, causing enormous personal and family suffering and severely limiting a country’s ability to develop,” said Dr. P. Namperumalsamy, Aravind’s chairman, known as Dr. Nam.
Extreme sun and a genetic predisposition mean cataracts often strike Indians in their 40s and 50s versus the 60s and 70s more common in the United States.
McDONALD’S AS MODEL
When he retired from India’s government health service in 1976, Venkataswamy, known as Dr. V, mortgaged his home to start an eye clinic with 11 beds in a rented house in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, in the southern tip of India.
Aravind has handled more than 29 million outpatients and performed more than 3.6 million surgeries.
Dr. V, who died in 2006 at age 87, was inspired by the U.S. fast-food chain McDonald’s and its ability to replicate the same quality and efficiency anywhere in the world, and adapted the concept to eye care. Everything at Aravind, from systems and equipment to training, is standardized.
While a typical ophthalmologist might perform 250 to 400 surgeries annually, an Aravind doctor will average 2,000.
Because only 30 percent of its patients pay for services, Aravind’s model hinges on volume and efficiency to keep costs down.
Aravind is expanding globally, establishing seven eye hospitals in Bangladesh and also has participated in developing national eye care plans for India, Rwanda and Eritrea.
Aravind’s next challenge - one more complex than the relatively simple task of cataract surgery - will be to deal with India’s spate of diabetes-related blindness, Dr. Nam told Reuters in an interview.
“India is going to be the diabetes capital of the world,” he said. “Our aim is to prevent going blind due to diabetic retinopathy.”
But getting to patients in time, including the many who are poor and illiterate and living in remote villages, will be a huge challenge. “There are 46 million diabetics in India, and only 11,000 ophthalmologists,” Nam said. “Every diabetic should have an ophthalmologic exam - but it’s not possible.”