24 Sep 2019 17:15 IST

Sankara Nethralaya, a visionary healthcare provider

One of the country’s foremost eye hospitals, its aim is to make high quality eye care available to all

Sometimes, the right words of inspiration, at the right time, to the right person, can result in spectacularly successful and productive initiatives. One such iconic example is Sankara Nethralaya (SN). Headquartered in Chennai, it was founded by ophthalmologist Dr Sengamedu Srinivasa Badrinath in 1978, and is now one of India’s foremost eye hospitals, etching its name in the public consciousness as the go-to place for anything related to the eye. In fact, the blue-and-white eye logo of Sankara Nethralaya is recognised and respected wherever it is seen.

When he was very young, Dr Badrinath was deeply affected by the suffering of a relative who was totally blind. This is said to have led to his opting for the career of an eye specialist in later years, and he passed out of Madras Medical College top of the class in Ophthalmology. After further studies in the US and a stint with the ‘father of modern retinal surgery’ Dr Charles KL Schepens, he returned to Chennai and took up a job at the Voluntary Health Services (VHS).

Soon, patients from all over India were visiting VHS to be treated by Dr Badrinath for diabetic retinopathy. As trust in his name grew, he also started seeing patients at the Hirendra Mehta (HM) Hospital (now defunct) in Chennai. He later moved to Vijaya Hospital, even while he was a consultant for VHS and HM Hospital.

The big picture

In 1978, inspired by the advice of the spiritual head of a religious mutt, who wished him to provide affordable, quality medical care to poor patients, Dr Badrinath started Sankara Nethralaya on the premises of Vijaya Hospital. Many people came forward to financially support the venture, started under the guidance of the Medical Research Foundation (MRF).

Soon, a loan from Andhra Bank enabled him to buy land in Nungambakkam — the Maneckjis, who owned the land and the bungalow that stood on it, lowered the asking rate to help the sale go through! Philanthropists like CU Shah, after whom the eye bank is named, and VD Swamy contributed generously. SN moved to the new premises in 1979.

As the number of patients increased, a new block was added in 1982. By the end of the next decade, a new, seven-storeyed building was added and another hospital came up in the suburbs; in 1999, the nearby Lady Willingdon Nursing Home was bought for ₹12 crore — donated by eminent jurist Nani A Palkhivala — and the eye hospital expanded further. The hospital continues to receive donations — both for its core operations as well as research — from individuals, trusts and business communities.

Sankara Nethralaya began as a 17-bed hospital with one operation theatre, one ophthalmologist and six employees. Today, it has more than 12 centres in Chennai, Kolkata and Andhra Pradesh. About 4,50,000 patients are treated at these facilities every year.

Service for all

The hospital had a simple goal: to make superior quality eye care available to all. It went beyond that to offer the same top-notch services to all patients, paying or non-paying. All who visit the hospital — rich or poor, of high designation or jobless, get the same courteous attention. The ophthalmologists who work here do not get consultation fees; they get a monthly income. Every patient gets the same treatment, whether as an outpatient or in-patient, with the same post-surgery room, medicines, food and rehabilitative care for all. Almost 50 per cent of outpatient services and about 40 per cent of surgeries are free.

Sankara Nethralaya became the first Asian hospital to get the ISO 9002 certification in 1998. Its main campus, the JKCN complex and the CU Shah Sankara Nethralaya also have the NABH accreditation.

The CU Shah Eye Bank, established in 1979, which is said to have collected the maximum number of donor eyes; the Vision Research Foundation (VRF) with research facilities in various fields of science and tie-ups with international research organisations; and the Sankara Nethralaya Women’s Auxiliary (SWAN) are part of SN and contribute in no small measure to its continued success.

Apart from research in eye care, on the technological front, SN has been taking great strides. Manual transfer of patient records between different complexes has been eliminated through the implementation of electronic medical records, available online across facilities. The hospital is also getting ready to apply AI in treatment and diagnoses in the future.

SN continues to widen the scope of its services to include the rural poor, who do not have easy accessibility to hospitals and medical care. In 2003, it inaugurated a tele-ophthalmology project for villages. This meant that a mobile bus with SN staff members would visit the outskirts of Chennai and rural areas to urge people to get their eyes screened. The bus was designed by a team from Sankara Nethralaya, with inputs from ISRO. It was equipped with a satellite dish donated by ISRO and a glass grinder for on-the-spot spectacle-making donated by Essilor International SA. A doctor sitting in Chennai would check patients and offer diagnoses and treatment. Starting with visits to just a few places, this outreach programme has grown to the extent that camps are conducted every day, as the hospital strives to reach even the remotest outposts.

Sankara Nethralaya also runs several teaching and training centres such as the Vidyasagar Institute of Bio-medical Sciences, the CU Shah Ophthalmic Post-graduate Training Centre, the Elite School of Optometry and the Sankara Nethralaya Academy. The Ekalavya E-learning department was established in 2003.

Furthermore, it is the only eye hospital in India that is recognised by the University of Edinburgh to conduct the FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) examination.

Research papers, awards

SN recently received its first international patent for “a method for cultivating cells derived from corneal limbal tissue” to treat diseases of the eye. It brings out various publications on research and subject matter, such as atlases on retinal diseases, neuro-ophthalmology, ophthalmic ultrasound, uveitis, and scleritis, and in-house publications like Eyelights, Darshan and EnLITEnment.

SN has several firsts to its credit — be it in surgical procedures, the setting up of specialised laboratories or in the acquisition of specialised equipment.

Eminent personalities from different fields have lauded Sankara Nethralaya. Nani A Palkhivala called it the “Best managed charitable organisation in India”; Dr MS Swaminathan termed it the “the brightest jewel in the crown of eye care”; and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust has given it the accolade of a “high performing knowledge institution”.

Awards offered by Sankara Nethralaya include the Sankara Ratna Award and the MS Subbulakshmi award.

Dr Badrinath was awarded the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. The hospital and individuals attached to it have won so many awards that it is impossible to list them all here. Most importantly, it has given a boost to medical tourism and received the Best Medical Tourism Award-2018 by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Corporation, Ficci Medical Travel Value Award-2018 from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and the ‘Services Export Promotion Zone’ (SEPZ). It has also received the Nasscom award for ‘Best IT Adoption in the Healthcare Sector’, and was listed among the 10 best hospitals in India and as the best eye care provider in the country.