In conversation with Sushila Ravindranath, the founder of Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre shares his experience and the future of diabetes care
V Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre is turning 25 this year. Dr Mohan, the founder of the eponymously named centre based in Chennai has set up 22 diabetes hospitals in these 25 years, many of them in Tamil Nadu.
It is the largest diabetic care hospital chain in the country. As in many other healthcare areas, the city is a leader in diabetes treatment as well. Mohan is now planning to expand at a faster pace.
The country’s very first diabetes clinic was set up by Mohan’s father Dr M Viswanathan at Stanley hospital in Chennai. He was possibly the country’s first diabetics specialist. In 1970, he left the government hospital to start MV Diabetics Hospital in North Madras. When Mohan finished school in 1971 he was persuaded by his father to take up medicine. Ever since, his life has revolved around diabetes, its prevention and treatment.
Over lunch at the Centre’s cafeteria (where he meets his visitors), Mohan tells me why it has taken him this long to plan to go all-India and further. We are served from the regular non diabetic menu consisting of rice, sambar, rasam, couple of vegetables, yogurt and pickles. It is non spicy with minimum oil content. No fried stuff is served with the dishes. The food is quite tasty.
“I was all geared up to study English literature. My father wanted me to help him in the hospital. So I ended up doing medicine. I didn’t want to wait for the next 10 years or so to begin working. I started going to my father’s hospital in the first year itself.
With my total focus on diabetes, subjects like surgery and gynaecology didn’t particularly interest me. However I did quite well in my studies,” says this college topper. Mohan started writing papers on the disease with his father. His first paper was published in 1974 when he was 20. He worked with his father from 1971 to 1991.
In these years about 35 papers were brought out. Mohan acquired many more qualifications and trained in hospitals abroad over the years. In the last 30 years the doctor and his team have 1,036 publications to their credit which is something of a world record.
“By 1991 many of my family members studied medicine and were trained by my father. The number of patients was no longer small. Diabetes was showing signs of becoming an epidemic. I was convinced we should set up more hospitals. My father didn’t agree. My wife Rema (his classmate) and I decided to break away and start on our own in South Madras.
We did not have money. My wife had taken loans to specialise in retinopathy. We started in a small way, moved to larger premises in 1996 and started expanding.”
Mohan has been training doctors to set up diabetes centres. “The disease has become rampant in the last 10 years. Indians are genetically prone to diabetes. Now, with increasing prosperity and changing food habits and life style, it is affecting the rural population as well which wasn’t the case earlier. We get patients who are 20 years old. In Chennai and Delhi, where studies have been done, 75 % of the population are either diabetics or pre-diabetic.” The economic implication of this is dire both for the individual and the country.
Diabetes is a killer. Left unchecked it affects the eyes, heart, feet and causes impotency. “It is an expensive disease. Once you develop a complication there are only costly options.
You can treat renal failure with either kidney transplant or dialysis. The personal, social and economic costs of diabetes are huge and will adversely affect the country’s economic development over the next couple of decades. Only 2 to 5 % Indians can afford these treatments.
It is not only an economic burden on the family, but also on society. Dialysis centres have been set up in government hospitals. Only limited number of patients can be treated here and there is only limited number of doctors available.”
“Can diabetes be reversed,” I ask the doctor. “Everything can be reversed in the early stages. It is important where you get yourself diagnosed and how you get diagnosed.” “Whatever we suggest we back it up by research.”
Recognising the need for a world class research institute to conduct studies on diabetes and its complications in the country, Mohan and his wife established the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation in a small room in 1996.
It is now recognised worldwide as a premier research institute. “It is the largest stand alone diabetes research centre in Asia,” says Mohan. “We have developed several products such as high fibre rice for diabetes. We worked on this rice for seven years”.
We are now being served coffee. For non-diabetic visitors, there is a choice of hot chocolate and badam milk. I add a spoon of sugar to my coffee with great hesitation. It seems inappropriate to find out if the cafeteria serves desert. I ask Mohan about his growth plans.
“So far our growth has been organic. We have funded expansion with bank loans and internal accruals. We are now looking at other options. We were not ready so far. After setting up 20 centres we took a break last year to put our plans in place. I have learnt a lot from the triumphs and trials of the last 25 years”.
Mohan admits that he did not have a proper business model earlier. Growth happened in a haphazard manner. He is now far more focussed.
“I have brought in a new CEO from the Fortis Group. He is helping us build teams. We have never compromised on quality in the last 25 years. I have trained every doctor personally. We now have the right people and the right infrastructure. We have invested heavily in IT. I know how important it is to have proper systems. We have been getting various international accreditations”.
The planned expansion will be based on market research. “We will be looking at the population numbers, foot prints and paying capacity of the people. We now have 4 lakh registered patients. In the next five years we will be treating one million people. Diabetes is not a one time disease. Once diagnosed regular three-monthly check up is necessary. We get a lot of out station patients.
They can’t be travelling every three or four months for checkups.”
Mohan has set up a trust to treat poor patients. “To celebrate our 25 years, we are planning to adopt 25 villages for diabetes care,” he tells me as I leave the busy doctor.