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Ayurveda: Nothing Divine, Just Science

Binding two worlds of medicine, Rajiv Vasudevan is trying to make AyurVaid the first stop for treatment

Published: Aug 1, 2011
Image: Gireesh GV for Forbes India

For Bail Bharath, life had never been better. At 47, he ran his own environmental engineering company and drove a Hyundai Elantra. But his perfect world came crashing down one Monday morning when his back began to hurt. At the hospital, the doctors recommended surgery and physiotherapy. But there was no guarantee that his back would heal completely even after the surgery. A disheartened Bharath even traded his favourite sedan for a Toyota Innova as it was less painful to get in and out of a bigger car.

Then, a friend’s brother recommended ayurveda. Though sceptical, Bharath decided to give it a try. He went to an ayurvedic hospital called AyurVaid at Domlur in Bangalore. Bharath was pleasantly surprised. AyurVaid resembled a modern private hospital. He was shown some case studies where AyurVaid’s treatment had cured patients with similar problems.

Today, Bharath is a happier man. He is optimistic that one day he will be completely free of the pain that almost derailed his perfect life.

For the doctors at AyurVaid, Bharath is another case study. Sometimes AyurVaid uses a combination of ayurveda and allopathy to treat patients. This is one of the few things that sets AyurVaid apart from the 2,400-odd ayurveda hospitals in the country.  

“We bring out the best in both [allopathy and ayurveda],” says Rajiv Vasudevan, founder of AyurVaid. To change people’s perception of ayurveda, he has used a business model that is similar to some allopathy hospitals.

AyurVaid documents every treatment administered in its network of six hospitals across four states. This detailed documentation and process-driven style of practice has also helped AyurVaid get the first NABH (National Accreditation Board for Hospitals & Healthcare Providers) certification for an ayurveda hospital.

The Origin
This evidence-based approach is also what makes Vasudevan sound like an ayurvedic physician. Though not formally trained, he can identify and rattle off cures for various diseases. He says, “The personality driven thing [practice] is the bane of a system like this. They say it is divine capability as opposed to science, which everybody can learn.”

But not long ago, Vasudevan himself was a non-believer. A mechanical engineer from NIT, Calicut, and an MBA from IIM, Calcutta, his foray into ayurveda was accidental. In 2003, Vasudevan was working as a special officer for biotech with the Government of Kerala. The government had asked him to create a road map for the development of biotechnology in the state. While researching the field, he saw the connection between biotechnology and ayurveda. His began to delve more into ayurveda and saw a process hidden behind years of tradition. He decided to turn that process into a business model when he started AyurVaid.

Vasudevan opened his first two hospitals with funds, to the tune of Rs. 50 lakh, borrowed from family and friends. The first hospital was set up at Ernakulam in 2005. The hospital, which has now shifted to Kochi, had 15 beds. Today, AyurVaid has five more hospitals — two in Bangalore and one each in Chennai, Hubli and Mumbai — and a customer base of 20,000 patients. From the beginning, Vasudevan ensured that systems such as the customer relationship management (CRM) were in place. After he formulated the other standards for treatment, in 2008, he went in for an initial round of funding and received Rs. 4.5 crore from Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund.

“AyurVaid presents an innovative business model to leverage traditional medicine in a way that can provide high quality care for growing chronic diseases,” says Meghna Rao, country head, India, Acumen Fund. The year he received funds from Acumen, Vasudevan started the Domlur hospital with 30 beds.

Not Just Grandma’s Remedy  
Ayurveda is a systems approach to health,” says Vasudevan, “and a systems approach looks at multiple systems and their approach to each other. It’s got a language. It’s got physiology, anatomy, pharmacology. It’s got a conceptual framework, where you say this is the thing I see in the system; so if this is happening in this system, the root cause for that is something happening in another system.” Put simply, ayurvedic science believes in going to the root cause of a problem before recommending treatment.  

Although this conceptual framework is taught in ayurvedic colleges, it is not practiced systematically in ayurvedic hospitals. Vasudevan and his team of doctors formulated a patient chart that goes deep into a patient’s history like previous treatments, allergies, reports, etc. They make a conscious decision to refer a patient to an allopathic hospital should they feel the condition is not manageable. Consequently, they also get referred to by allopathic doctors when patients cannot find treatment in allopathy.

The rigourous process of documentation is extended to the patients as well. For Vasudevan, this is also a way of measuring customer satisfaction levels. He says, “We have customer satisfaction formats based on questions such as, do you know your diagnosis, do you know the line of treatment and what to expect from the treatment?” His goal is to reach an 80 percent level of customer satisfaction. At present, his hospitals have a 68-78 percent level of customer satisfaction.

Vasudevan wants patients to see AyurVaid as a place where their health is tracked, documented and taken care of, and not just a one-off treatment centre. “We don’t want to be the alternative. We want to be the main form of treatment for the patient,” says Dr. Narayanan Namboodiri, who previously worked at a cancer hospital in Kerala.

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Ayurveda for All
At present, each AyurVaid hospital has a minimum of two and a maximum of five physicians. Vasudevan hopes to grow his network of six hospitals to 1,500 beds in the next three to five years. He has already segmented his business offering into three groups: AyurVaid, AyurSeva and Ayurveda in Action. This division has more to do with growing the market. “Each hospital breaks even within six to 12 months, but sustainability [of patients] is the issue,” he says.
 
AyurVaid targets the upper-middle class, while AyurSeva is aimed at the lower-middle class. At AyurVaid, the treatment costs range from Rs. 2,250- 4,000 per day. The consultation fee ranges from Rs. 150-450 depending on the city.

At AyurSeva, the treatment costs are as low as Rs. 1,000-1,500 per day. AyurSeva, which also targets those who are below poverty line (BPL), is a programme to “give best of private sector quality for BPL, widows and geriatric patients,” says Vasudevan. The consultation fee for BPL patients is Rs. 50. For serious ailments, the costs at AyurSeva range between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 7,000 per week.  

But despite different price points, Vasudevan says it is not easy to attract patients in both segments. So, to drive more people into the main hospital, he and his team devised an offering similar to FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) called Ayurveda in Action which was launched in Mumbai.

“We came out with a campaign where we would treat common everyday problems with ayurvedic medicine,” he says. “It would cost Rs. 2 for gas and Rs. 3 for constipation.” Though this model is less than three months old, he says, “It has worked, we gained 200 customers through this and we plan to roll it out in Bangalore as well.”

Though AyurVaid has had an interesting journey, ayurveda itself has a long way to go. “I think there’s a lack of vision within the sector,” says Vasudevan. But Dr G.G. Gangadharan, joint director, Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, a private centre, has a different view. He says, “There is a lot of learning still going on. You have to be open-minded and we want more people to start this initiative.”

Another challenge for the sector is manpower. Dr. Rana Mehta, executive director, PricewaterhouseCoopers, says, “The roadblocks to popularisation of ayurveda, as an alternative system of medicine, is accessibility to proper institutions, inability to brand the services and perceived inadequacy in the skill sets of existing practitioners.”

Also, while the NABH certification for ayurvedic hospitals came out in 2009, only 13 hospitals from the private sector applied for it. “Government hospitals are preparing to apply,” says Dr. Bhawna Gulati, assistant director, NABH, Quality Council of India. “An NABH accreditation is like an ISI mark on a product that assures consumers you are in safe hands,” she says.

But for Vasudevan, the major challenge will be to make people accept ayurveda as a credible form of treatment. He says, “Ayurveda has a big role to play. It’s got the potential to become a big sector, but it requires more good people to come on board.”

(This story appears in the 12 August, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Dr. Abhijeet Safai

    There is other side of story of Ayurveda as well. Please read the article titled \'Ayurveda: Hoax or Science\' at OpenMagzine by Priyanka Pulla. Thank s. Here is the link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/living/ayurveda-hoax-or-science

    on Sep 18, 2014
  • Jay

    Congratulations AyurVaid. Ayurveda is recognized at Harvard and Yale as having the potential to treat conditions allopathy can't. So hang in there,

    on Aug 2, 2011
  • Sumit Gupta

    Its not all up to the physicians who took care of it but ayurvaid itself takes patience, comes with treatment of calm medicine.

    on Aug 1, 2011
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