In 1983, at a time when the government’s commitment to investing in public health care appeared to be flagging, Prathap Chandra Reddy did something unthinkable: He launched the country’s first corporate-sector medical system.
Three decades on, the argument over the pros and cons of privatised health care in a poor country remains unsettled but there is one thing Dr Reddy’s admirers and critics both agree on: the emergence and rise of his company, Apollo Hospitals Enterprises has altered the health-care landscape of India.
From one multispecialty facility that he founded in Chennai 30 years ago to 54 hospitals, 1,600 pharmacies, 60 diagnostic clinics, and 11 nursing colleges in 2013, Dr. Reddy’s medical system attracts more than 100,000 footfalls daily all across India. Cumulatively, more than 32 million people have been treated at various Apollo hospitals.
Even more remarkable is the fact that he began his venture at an age when most people start planning for their retirement. Dr. Reddy was 50 years old when he opened Apollo Chennai.
He turns 80 on February 5 this year.
Penguin Enterprise, part of The Penguin Group, is bringing out his first book, Stay Healthy, India!: 108 Thoughts For My Country’s Health Care .
His plan for the creation of a nation-wide hospital system in the corporate sector may not seem extraordinary today when private medicine has made major inroads across the country but it was dramatic 30 years ago. What motivated him was the belief that public sector and charity hospitals needed to be complemented by strong corporate-sector medical institutions.
When he set up Apollo Hospitals in Chennai in 1983, private health care institutions were virtually unknown in the country. Zail Singh, who was then President of India, marvelled at Apollo’s high-tech equipment — so much so that instead of staying a mere 20 minutes for the hospital’s inauguration, he devoted nearly two hours to asking questions during a guided tour by an obviously delighted Dr. Reddy. Apollo today performs more heart surgeries, more heart transplants, and more kidney and liver transplants, than any other facility in the world. The group has some 10,000 hospital beds, and more will be introduced this year and in the near future, including in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere in the Gulf. Of course, this is a fraction of India’s needs. But the quality and consistency of health care that Dr. Reddy has insisted on continues to make a difference in the way that patients are treated.
Limits and critics
His is the story of one man who set out to revolutionise the unaddressed health-care needs of a section of India’s growing middle class. It is a tale of manoeuvring through difficult bureaucratic and complex medical systems. This tale offers deep insight into the nature and future of medical care in India. It is an inspirational story. It is a salutary tale of how overwhelming difficulties can sometimes be overcome with what Dr. Reddy calls his “Three P’s” — purity, patience, and persistence.
The Apollo model of providing private-sector health care is not without its limits, not without its critics. The limitations have to do with the fact that, with India’s large population, its specialty service can be offered only to a mere fraction of the people.
Moreover, as Dr. Reddy himself acknowledges, primary health care should be the responsibility of the government, which has both the resources and manpower to reach all parts of the country.
Critics continue to contend that Apollo — and other private-sector — hospitals offer services that are beyond the financial reach of most Indians. Such criticism goes to the heart of an ongoing debate in the health-care sector about the influence and role of profit-oriented institutions. It’s not a debate that shows signs of abating any time soon.
(Pranay Gupte is an author and veteran journalist. His biography, The Healer: Dr. Prathap Chandra Reddy and the Transformation of India’s Health Care, will be published by Penguin this year. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )