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Healthy people are happy people: Apollo Hospitals' Dr Prathap Reddy's mantra

Dr Reddy has been providing quality healthcare in India since 1983, and there are no signs of him slowing down as the FILA 2022 Lifetime Achievement awardee says, 'health has no holiday'

Pooja Sarkar
Published: Mar 23, 2022 12:40:16 PM IST
Updated: Mar 23, 2022 01:06:57 PM IST

Healthy people are happy people: Apollo Hospitals' Dr Prathap Reddy's mantra Dr. Prathap C Reddy, Founder Chairman of Apollo Hospitals Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Fores India

Dr Prathap Reddy vividly remembers landing behind bars for attending a sabha (political gathering) by Mahatma Gandhi in the pre-Independence Days. “I was in high school and we went to Silver Hall to see Gandhiji that day. After we came out, the police arrested us and took us to jail in batches of 20. My grandfather later told the officer to release us immediately, saying else he’ll beat them up,” he recalls.  

Born in the small town of Aragonda, 100 miles away from the erstwhile Madras Presidency, in 1933, Reddy, 89, is the founder-chairman of Apollo Hospitals. In Aragonda—which today has an Apollo Hospital—one could study only up to class three and so, he had to go to the nearest town Chittoor for further studies. “I studied, fooled around and played like a monkey… the one with a cycle who was out and about, and had so much fun,” he says.  

While in Stanley Medical College in Chennai, Reddy became assistant secretary and wanted to hold a medical exhibition so that people know about their bodies. His principal, however, refused. Dr V Shanta, one of the foremost women doctors in India, and he then got together, pooled in money and held the exhibition despite the opposition. But for three days, no one turned up. A determined Reddy visited every newspaper in Chennai and requested them to see what they were doing. They need not write about it if they didn’t like it, but they should at least visit, he believed.

The exhibition was covered on the front pages immediately and Reddy had to send telegrams to his classmates, who had gone home for vacations, to return to college to manage the overwhelming crowd. The exhibition’s success resulted in them getting a grant which helped them run a social programme in a village. Reddy’s enterprising skills were on display at a young age.  

Later, Reddy tells Forbes India, he moved to London to study medicine. “This was after Independence. I realised Nehru [Jawaharlal, India’s first prime minister] had come, so I went up to him and said he should address our college students as we are together as a union,” he recalls. Nehru was furious and told Reddy: “You are supposed to study… your parents suffer because of your union activities, unions call for strikes.” Not afraid of putting across his point of view, Reddy retorted, “I don’t know what students you are talking about, but Madras students don’t do all that. But as a prime minister, if you address students, it will be insightful.” During his next visit, Nehru did address the students, but Reddy was not college president then; he was off to another journey.

Healthy people are happy people: Apollo Hospitals' Dr Prathap Reddy's mantraReddy is the first from his family, and from his village, to study in a college—he did his bachelor’s in science. His father wanted him to become a businessman, but the MBA admissions were delayed and Reddy got a seat at Stanley Medical College. “My father said, ‘Oh medical, he completely ignored me’,” says Reddy, who went on to become a doctor. After he was told he won’t get a master’s seat in medicine due to reservation issues, he left for the United Kingdom.

“I was there for six months or so. I saw many people were studying very hard for the US medical entrance exams. I had paid my fee in London, but I still sent a telegram to Philadelphia, saying I want to appear for the exam. They replied via telegram that this is your hall ticket,” says Reddy, who then moved to the US.

He trained at the Massachusetts General Hospital and later at Boston Missouri State Chest Hospital. Reddy did his specialisation in cardiology and was living a comfortable life with his wife and four daughters—Preetha, Suneeta, Shobana and Sangeeta—there. One day, he bought a new car, clicked a family photo with it, and sent it to his father. His father usually never replied to his telegrams; his agent did. However, that time he personally wrote to his son: “Whatever you do, there are only two people who are enjoying it. But if you can give pleasure to people in the country, how will that be?” Says Reddy: “He didn’t explicitly say come back. He said if you can do service for others, how will that be? This was October 1969. Immediately, my wife said we should go back.” The Reddys then returned to India.  

“In 1971, dad’s decision to return from the US was largely driven by his father’s desire that he should use his medical training for the people of our country. At that point, most people in India did not have access to quality health care, and it was only the affluent who travelled to Western nations for advanced medical care,” says Shobana Kamineni, executive vice chairperson at Apollo Hospitals, and the third oldest of Reddy’s daughters who now works out of the Hyderabad office and looks after the pharmacy business.

After his return, Reddy took up a small space in a new nursing home being built near his house and started his cardiology practice. “From the president to the prime minister and state ministers, whenever rich people needed me, they came, but there was no acceptable cardiac care programme in India then, so I used to refer them to the US,” says Reddy.  

One day, Reddy referred a 38-year-old patient to his friend, Dr Denton Arthur Cooley, the first surgeon to perform the implantation of an artificial heart in the US. However, due to financial constraints, the patient could not travel for his treatment. “It was October or November 1979. He died… because he couldn’t raise money. I told myself, ‘Why should people go abroad… when Indians in every field were on top of the world? Why shouldn’t we do it right here’,” remembers Reddy, who decided to start his own hospital.

Healthy people are happy people: Apollo Hospitals' Dr Prathap Reddy's mantra

Starting India’s first corporate hospital, however, was not an easy task. Says Reddy: “I talked to a few friends and everybody said you are crazy. You have a good practice here… if you want to do something, build a nursing home and expand your facility. But I wanted to build a hospital.”

That’s when Reddy travelled to Delhi for the first time—to get clearances to open a corporate hospital which was unheard of during the red tape, licence raj era. With the urban land ceiling act, the cost of bringing foreign medical instruments in and the mountain of clearances required, it was an arduous task. He met Indira Gandhi [who was prime minister then] and told her about his plan to open a hospital. The government supported him and the first hospital came up in Chennai in 1983.
Apollo’s journey is now a case study at Harvard Business School and other large business schools. It is one of India’s well-documented stories on how private health care has evolved in India. The first corporate loan to build a hospital was also raised by Apollo for its Hyderabad hospital. Today, Apollo Hospitals is the most valued health care stock in Indian listed equities. As of March 4, the stock closed at ₹4,915.15 per share on the Bombay Stock Exchange, up by 1.09 percent from the previous day’s close, and has a full market capitalisation of ₹68,295.86 crore.

Healthy people are happy people: Apollo Hospitals' Dr Prathap Reddy's mantra

“Occasionally, once in a few decades, comes a visionary who combines compassion, business acumen and execution skills par excellence. Dr Pratap Reddy stands at the top of that short list. The one quality about him that stands taller than the rest is his deep concern and care for patient well-being—with both the best of doctors and facilities—and most critically, the human touch that embodies his personality,” says Gopal Srinivasan, founder and chairman of TVS Capital Funds, and a third generation of the TVS family which has known the Reddys for years. “He would personally visit patients at all hours to enquire about their health. There are stories of him visiting the hospital at 5 am before taking a flight or at 10 pm after landing in Chennai… and his age has not deterred his passion.”

As of December 31, 2021, Apollo has 71 hospitals with a total capacity of 10,033 beds. It includes 44 owned hospitals, including joint ventures, and subsidiaries and associates with 8,660 beds. It has 11 day care or short surgical stay centres with 244 beds, 11 cradles with 278 beds and five managed hospitals with an 851-bed capacity. Also, it has 4,390 pharmacies. It had a gross addition of 120 stores and closure of 22 in 2021. Apollo reported revenues of ₹3,638.9 crore during Q3FY22 compared to ₹2,759.8 crore during the same period in the previous year, a growth of 31.9 percent. It reported profit after tax of ₹228.4 crore during the December-ended quarter compared to ₹130.4 crore during the same period last year.

“Dad is the most driven, positive and empowering human I’ve known and that’s why he is admired all around the world. Though health care is the business of caring, one needs to take measured risks. As a case in point, India’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in Delhi which was the first PPP (public-private partnership) in health care in the country and even establishing South Asia’s first Proton Therapy… these were far ahead of anyone’s imagination and investment capacity, but dad took them on because he believed Indians needed them and he was right,” says Kamineni. “Whenever it is about patient care, dad refuses to accept ‘impossible’. He always says, just remove the screen of ‘not possible’ from your mind and see the magic unfold. A humanitarian and visionary, he always thinks about the greater good.”  

Although he is 89, Reddy isn’t slowing down. Apollo is now working on opening hospitals in Jammu and in Kashmir. The governor has sanctioned land and work will commence soon.

But what is closer to his heart is creating medical facilities in tier 2 towns so that people don’t have to travel to cities for check-ups. And increasing the ambit of medical tourism in India by turning the country into a global destination for medical tourism.

Apollo is also focussed on training health care practitioners. In the next five years, Reddy hopes to have trained 10,000 people under his own set-up.

“First, you do excellent care for people. Second, you’re training all these people who can go abroad and send remittances to their families… the families will be happy, and the country will be healthy with foreign remittance,” says Reddy.

As we are about to end our nearly-two-hour conversation, Reddy goes back to his roots, “I had a very gracious father and a very lovely mother… these are the two people who shaped my entire life,” he says, adding that during vacations he used to hike often in Aragonda—a place that inspired him to chase his dreams. “For the last 40 years I have been reading the Ramayana and Hanuman Chalisa… today I read chapter 10 before coming to work. That gives me some inner strength which I think made me,” says Reddy.

Legend has it that when Hanuman was carrying the mountain with the sanjeevni herb to save Lakshman’s life, half of the mountain fell here, and is known as Ardhagiri in Aragonda. Reddy took over the little town’s hospital sometime back.

“You know how you can build health and happiness… health by converting the 640 district hospitals into tertiary care ones. Here I spent ₹40 crore of my money in funding it… I said you should pay 50 percent of the funds. The hospitals will now treat the lower-cost section of people and give them the same care as the best hospitals in the country. So if you make them healthy, their families are happy,” says Reddy.

“He loves saying ‘health has no holiday’ and this ethos is his driving force,” says Kamineni.

As he prepares for Forbes India’s photoshoot, Reddy lets us in on another secret: He has hired three advisors across the country to ask each of this third generation on what they want to do at Apollo, and their vision for Apollo 100 years from now. And he is hoping for some interesting answers in the coming months.

(This story appears in the 08 April, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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