“What India lacks and the West has is expertise in local clinics to help patients recover”

Simply operating on children with holes in their hearts in India is not enough for Dr. Pierantonio Russo. Ensuring successful surgery means raising standards of healthcare across the board. Dr. Russo, who has 20 years of experience in adult and paediatric cardiac surgery, talks to Sarah Hiddleston about how developing countries can avoid the healthcare learning curve and about the future of heart treatment.

Niabla, 8, sits next to her bed, a cravat of bandages stretching into her shirt. Clutching a small pink heart-shaped pillow, she waves at the man who came from the U.S. to mend her heart for free three days ago, after she was transferred from the Institute of Child Health Egmore to Lifeline Speciality Hospital. “I’m feeling fine. No pain today,” she chirrups.

The pillow is nice for the kids but it has another function — they use it to cough against, a painful but important exercise after surgery. Dr. Russo demands high standards, not just from surgeons, but nurses, juniors, right down to cleaners.

“If you are doing paediatric surgery, everything has to be up to the mark, be it protocols, cleanliness, post-operative care, nutrition or anything else” said Dr. Russo, whose experience encompasses stints at Great Ormond Street, U.K., and the Mayo Clinic, U.S. as well as ‘missions’ in Latvia, Romania and Colombia.

That’s why he believes that his expertise in healthcare management will in time serve more purpose than his surgery.

“India has well-trained physicians and nurses … My role is to help the hospital build the infrastructure that people need and ensure that their standards meet international standards,” said Dr. Russo of the long-term partnership he has with LifeLine.

In his opinion, one way to jump the healthcare learning curve in India is to avoid replicating the insurance-led private healthcare system of the U.S. or the social security system of the U.K. Instead, private and public hospitals could compete for patients who can choose to undergo treatment funded at a fixed rate by the government in a private hospital — a practice recently introduced in his country of birth Italy, which is bringing results.

What India lacks and the West has is expertise in local clinics to help patients recover, so he encourages longer ward stays and social worker visits.

Also, important is investment in stem cell research, which he says is the future treatment for acute and chronic illnesses. IIT (Madras), the LifeLine group, and Dr. Russo, who is currently undertaking a year’s sabbatical to pursue research at Temple University, Philadelphia, are hoping to create beating cells from fibroblasts and insert them into damaged hearts. It is still in the experimental stage but it could avoid the need for Niabla and her ward mates to undergo the trauma of surgery at a relatively late stage.

The children will all go home in a few days and Dr. Russo will return to the U.S. But the lessons learnt, Dr. Russo hopes, will have a domino effect inside and outside the hospital.

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