Learning from Frugal Health
Last year, a book was published that narrated the story of an eye doctor who was performing free surgeries for the poor.
The book, “Infinite Vision,” had nothing to do with American health care. But this past week, as commentators fought ruthlessly on cable shows about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, I couldn’t help but think of that story.
Why? Because there was a humanity, a spirituality infused in the health care system of “Infinite Vision.” Something that I feel is lacking in our modern health care system. There is no soul to healing, it seems.
“Infinite Vision” tells the story of Dr. V, a young, tenacious and headstrong doctor determined to give eyesight to those who couldn’t afford it. But beneath that drive and tenacity was a sense of service, a sense of understanding that his profession was not for himself but for others.
And though he was part doctor, part businessman (and a shrewd one as well), he also was a volunteer, a member of the community, a man of service. So, what dictated his profession was not his finances but his vision — that his skills should be use for the betterment of society.
Long before “sustainability” became the most exciting word in business, uttered far too loosely by giddy corporate executives, Dr. V created a tiered-pricing model to help “sustain” this eye clinic.
He stripped the bells and whistles of patient care to give those who couldn’t pay for eye surgeries the treatment they needed without all the overhead costs. He used doctors tactfully for their services, having them perform surgeries and specialized care that couldn’t be performed by nurses and medical staff.
He charged those who could pay and those who could partially pay — but always in correspondence with their income level. There was a dignity, a consciousness that medicine is meant to aid not only the rich man, but also the poor, without stripping him of his belongings.
And this vision that stirred Dr. V, until his recent death, was adopted by his family and staff who operate the countless Aravind Eye Care centers in India today.
In many ways, that was his true victory — to assemble a team that was as passionate and empathetic as him.
In the modern world, where monetary incentives have to lure employees to work hard, getting a team together of selfless individuals is the greatest task.
Dr. V’s team, however, did eye surgeries in the middle of the night, starting at 1 a.m. in makeshift clinics in rural schools to beat the heat of the Indian sun. There was a pride in the work, a sense of satisfaction that serving another human being with dignity is a paycheck in itself. And nothing more is needed.
I was humbled by his ingenuity. At the end of the day, he was a businessman as well, running clinics on frugal accounts. Hence, it was not just purely humanitarian efforts or philanthropy but a “sustainable” business model that balanced finances with services.
But, if I could ask him today how he would rank the various “hats” he wore, he’d probably say, a man of service first, a doctor second, a businessman third.
He had a clear understanding that his business should be a service, it should offer a product that is much needed, it should meet a requirement in society, it should not be extraneous, it should not be a burden to the customer and it should not be crafted to benefit him primarily.
That’s a much more layered meaning of business and even medicine, for that matter — one worth examining closely.
These days, we often look to prestigious business and medical schools for ingenuity and innovation in health. We look to “successful” developed nations that have a constant stream of resources for examples to replicate.
But, I have found that some of the better examples, the ones worth emulating and studying, come from those who live closer to the earth, those who live in conditions that are not so easy and comfortable.
Because they tend to have fewer bells and whistles, less of the idiotic paperwork, greater creativity (due to their limited resources) and, quite frankly, a frugality that drives their survival.
In all the useless banter on health care reform that I heard on television this past week, I didn’t hear anything about the soul of medicine — the reason that it was crafted to begin with, the healing that it’s meant to provide, and why it may be one of the most spiritual professions.
Because to do so would mean that we have to put the numbers aside, we have to put our partisanship aside, we have to put competition aside and humble ourselves with the question: “What is at the core of health care?”
And the answer to that is not a number, not a campaign sound bite and not a business card, it’s about humanity, which requires empathy, not Excel spreadsheets.
This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.