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April 14, 2000
Corporates offer hi-tech health to Andhra's villages
Shobha Warrier in Aragonda, Andhra Pradesh
Twenty-five kilometres north-west of Chittoor in southern Andhra Pradesh is a little town called Aragonda. It is no different from any other south Indian village: small, sleepy and all that. But Aragonda will be different soon. Its newly established medical facilities will ensure that.
As one drove through the narrow, bumpy road one late evening, one could see Aragonda enveloped in darkness. And in the darkness is a bright patch, like the full moon in a indigo-hued sky, the fully illumined Apollo Hospitals, visible from afar.
Stunned because 70 per cent of India (population = 1 billion) lives in its villages but eighty per cent of the medical community lives in the cities. Even after fifty years of Independence, majority of Indian villagers have to travel several kilometres to see a doctor when they are seriously ill. A pregnant woman has to be carried on a cot to the nearby clinic even while she is in labour. There are no primary health centres in most of the rural areas and if there are any, they do not have proper buildings, doctors, paramedical staff and medicines. More often than not, doctors do not wish to practise their profession in the villages when they can lead a better and more comfortable life in the cities. Lack of proper medical facilities has made quality healthcare a distant dream for Indians living in the rural and semi-urban areas.
So the immaculate, clean and impressive Apollo Hospital in Aragonda stirs one's emotions. The hospital became a reality thanks to the efforts of the Aragonda Medical and Educational Research Foundation, a trust formed by the Apollo group along with other likeminded philanthropists. Their aim, according to Apollo chairman Dr Pratap C Reddy, is "to bring world class healthcare to the rural people of this country at an affordable cost".
The hospital authorities hope to cater to the needs of not only the 4,000-odd people in Aragonda village but also the 120,000 people of the neighbouring villages. The hospital was built at a cost of Rs 50 million, including equipment worth Rs 20 million which is usually found in modern hospitals in cities. This includes a power generator too.
But what makes Aragonda special is Apollo's implementation of the telemedicine concept. More so because witchcraft and other such ancient things are still practised in Indian villages.
A tired-looking boy suffering from a congenital heart problem is on the examination table. The doctor attending on him records his electro cardiogram or ECG. The paediatric cardiac surgeon is to peruse the ECG and offer his expert advice. But the specialist is not in Aragonda. He is at Apollo Hospital in Madras, ready to harness telemedicine.
(Telemedicine involves transfer of medical information and data related to diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions using electronic communication networks. Offering medical advice through remote communication tools is popular in advanced countries. How does telemedicine work? The patient's clinical record and diagnostic images are converted into electronic digital data and transmitted through telephone/VSAT lines to a medical expert located in a tertiary hospital. The electronic digital data is converted back to the original medical format in the city hospital terminal for the medical expert to analyse the problem and then give proper diagnosis. The expert's advice is sent back to the physician in the rural hospital, all in a matter of few minutes.)
During his visit to Hyderabad, US President Bill Clinton was impressed by the presentation on the pioneering efforts of the Apollo Hospital in the field of telemedicine. Clinton commented, "I think it's a very wonderful contribution to the healthcare of the people who live in rural villages and I hope that people all over the world will follow your lead, because if we do, then the benefits of hi-tech medicine can go to everyone and not just the people who live in the big cities."
The World Health Organisation has recognised telemedicine as a means to deliver 'healthcare to all'. It will be a distant dream for the majority of Indians, though Apollo Hospitals has made a beginning.
The telemedicine project in Aragonda village is the phase-1 pilot project of the Apollo group. The phase-2 includes connecting 125 primary, 25 secondary and 3 tertiary centres in the five states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Phase-3 will connect 2,500 primary centres, 500 secondary and 100 tertiary centres all over the country. Apollo has plans to extend its services to other countries in the developing world and connect international centres of medical excellence with the local institutions in India.
The satellite facilities at the Aragonda telemedicine project have been provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation. Others who did their bit are Wipro, Citradel and General Electric. For the benefit of villagers, Apollo plans to launch a health insurance scheme in association with Oriental Insurance. A family of five can have health insurance for a premium of one rupee a day.
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