During my application and interview process with CASI, our program coordinator, Aparna, encouraged me to do some research on Aravind. She told me there were a number of online resources like case studies and presentations on the NGO. I ended up watching a 23-minute video on YouTube entitled “Infinite Vision: The Story of Aravind Eye Hospital” and skimming through a couple recent news articles. Both source types recited statistics about the initiative’s history, growth, and success that I’ll get to discussing below.
As I read up on South India’s most prestigious eye center in the comfort of my campus apartment half a world away, I was certainly impressed that to learn that an 11-bed clinic in 1976 had since expanded to a network of hospitals which see several thousand patients each day. But I now know I did not grasp the breadth nor importance of Aravind’s work until a few months and four plane rides later, observing the present-day operations on the ground. Here’s what I can tell you.
Founded in 1976 by their beloved Dr. Venkataswamy (amicably referred to as Dr. V), Aravind’s mission is to eliminate needless blindness. I’m a bit ashamed to admit, as a health and societies major, that prior to researching the organization I wasn’t even aware blindness was a major health issue in India. 39 million are blind worldwide, and 12 million within India alone. Of the 12 million cases in India, 80% fall into the “needless” category—that is, the debilitating condition is preventable or treatable. To combat these colossal numbers, Aravind provides eye care to the people of India.
What makes Dr. V’s initiative so special? The patients themselves decide how much to pay for their treatment. About half of the surgeries done are free or at a heavily subsidized rate. The money made from other half, who pay market price for their care, sustains those who are financially strained. And the people who can pay market price choose Aravind as they provide the best ophthalmology services in the area.
The cost-cutting measures Aravind takes has allowed this system to survive over 40 years. The hospital network produces its own lenses for cataract surgery, their primary operation, at its partner manufacturing center Aurolab. Their surgeons receive a modest pay that is comparable to what they could make at a government hospital (though many could opt for a much higher salary in private practice). Further, Aravind ophthalmologists do nearly 4 times as many operations per year than their counterparts in other parts of India and neighboring countries, meaning the cost-per-surgery with respect to the price of the surgeon’s time is much lower.
But eliminating needless blindness cannot be achieved if all suffering people are expected to seek treatment themselves. Among rural Indian populations live many of the patients who require free care. They don’t often have the resources to a) know Aravind exists and will provide free treatment and b) get to an Aravind clinic. Dr. V recognized this necessity to find patients rather than complacently wait for the blind population of 12 million to come to Aravind by their own means. This brings me to an integral part of achieving Aravind’s mission: eye camps.
The hospital reaches rural areas of Tamil Nadu though eye camps. I’ll continue piecing together the puzzle that is understanding Aravind’s expansive system when I get the opportunity to observe a camp myself within the next couple weeks. A blog post entitled “Interworking of Aravind” would be incomplete without a camp description, so I have but a working description on the interworking of Aravind for the time being.