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Interview: Dr Ajay Sharma: The Entrepreneurial Journey of a Doctor

Dr Ajay Sharma, a noted ophthalmologist and an alumnus of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGIMS), Rohtak, Haryana, is founder and CMD (Chairman and Managing Director) of Eye-Q Super-Speciality Eye Hospitals and founder and co-director of Sheetla Hospital and Eye Institute, Gurgaon.

Dr Ajay Sharma
Dr Ajay Sharma

He has a vision to build an apex eye care institute — on the lines of L V Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI), Hyderabad and Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai — in his home state of Haryana for the benefit of poor and common man. With that vision in mind, he co-founded Eye Q Vision in 2007. He also started a 100-bed multi-speciality Sheetla Hospital and Eye Institute in 1999 and gave space to 30 specialists to work and provided employment to 130 employees in that year.

Dr Sharma has been one of the early adopters of the latest technology in ophthalmology and is believed to have over one lakh successful surgeries to his credit. He also has an expertise in almost all surgeries of anterior segment including glaucoma, squint, oculoplasty and refractive surgery.

In an email interview with India Medical Times, Dr Ajay Sharma shared his experience as a doctor and the difficulties for a doctor to take the role of an entrepreneur in India.

Please tell us about your career as a doctor and specifically an ophthalmologist in India. Precisely, your path so far.

I began my career as an ophthalmologist working in medical colleges; during my decade long successful career in medical college I had the opportunity to be a pioneer in most of the fields in ophthalmology and earned my place to be amongst the top ophthalmologists in India. The desire to do more and contribute more to the society led us to set up Eye-Q chain of hospitals and today I am still working with the same zeal and enthusiasm to realize the vision that gave birth to Eye-Q.

What is the state of ophthalmology in India in comparison to the global scenario?

India is faced with an acute shortage of trained ophthalmologists. While the shortage of ophthalmologists is a global phenomenon the shortfall faced by India is staggering as compared to that in the US. While the quality and standard of treatment available is at par with the best in the world, we still have a long way to go in terms of availability and ease of access to ophthalmic care in India.

What’s your opinion about community ophthalmology and Vision 2020?

Community ophthalmology and Vision 2020 are both positive initiatives to address and combat the issues related to preventable and treatable blindness, community outreach and eye donation amongst other things. The initiatives need the active participation of both the private players and the government institutions to succeed.

There are Bionic Eye models being implanted, stem cells regenerated to treat even the most difficult eye diseases like macular degeneration. As far as research is concerned, why is India lagging behind?

In India the focus has been on setting up healthcare institutions and not so much on medical research as against clinical work. While we still lack the required infrastructure and funding for a well-meaning research, research is also not a preferred choice of career in India because of the negative assumption that it is not a full-time job. We do have many Indians engaged in high-quality research aboard but right now conditions don’t seem to be favourable to do the same in India.

There are lots of private institutions in the field of ophthalmology which are quite successful in treating the patients. What do you think the government should do in the field of ophthalmology? Do you think Public Private Partnerships might be helpful?

PPPs in ophthalmology can be helpful as long as both the parties are committed to it. The government should find ways to incentivize quality research in ophthalmology. While we do have quality institutions providing quality training in ophthalmology they are grossly inadequate to train required number of practitioners for a healthy sector. The government must invest in continuing medical education to facilitate easy upgradation of clinical skills.

Do you think there are enough facilities available to deal with all kinds of ophthalmic manifestations in India?

With a shortfall in trained practitioners and facilities more concentrated in tier I and tier II cities and access to eye care off limits to a large section of the population, we are ill-prepared to deal with any large scale ophthalmic manifestations in India. At Eye-Q centres in tier II and tier III towns we provide a complete range of medical and surgical eye care and optical services to patients of all age groups at affordable prices.

Tell us about the Eye-Q Super-Specialty Eye Hospitals. What provoked you to start these hospitals?

The Eye-Q hospital chain is an ISO 9001-2000 registered organization committed to providing the best possible quality eye care at an affordable rate. The chain aims to deliver world-class treatment and eye care not only to bigger cities but also to Tier II and Tier III cities across India. We currently have 42 operational centres with plans to grow at 25 percent year on year.

After establishing myself as an ophthalmologist, the desire to give back to the society and the challenging prospect of replicating my practice in smaller cities and towns to reach the masses and of course the opportunity for growth encouraged me and my co-founder Rajat Goel to set up Eye-Q.

What’s your mission through this?

At Eye-Q our mission is to make every patient an ambassador for Eye-Q, and we plan to achieve this by providing to each patient the highest level of quality and technology in eye care, exceptional personal care and complete integrity to the patient and his/her needs.

What all kind of specific treatments do you offer in your hospitals? If you could boast that this particular treatment is the best in your hospitals, which one would be that?

We offer a complete range of medical and surgical eye care and optical services like cataract services, refractive services, retina services, glaucoma, paediatric, oculoplasty, visual aid services to patients of all age-group through exceptional array of preventive and corrective procedures and cutting-edge practices.

Cataract surgery with 1) the latest IOL’s i.e. multifocal, trifocals, toric + extended focus; 2) micro-incision cataract surgery (MICS) as small as 1.66 mm; 3) femto-cataract – blade-free technology with more accuracy and precision.

Could you please share some of the challenges that you, as a doctor, faced while starting your entrepreneurial journey? How did you tackle them?

The challenges we faced while starting our entrepreneurial journey was:

1) Clinical — since we were working in tier II and tier III cities very few doctors were willing to work there. Hence we offered them a salary which was 40% over and above the market standards and we were the first in this industry to make this offer.

2) Managing operation team was a challenge. To tackle that we formed senior leadership team from different background like marketing, process, HR, finance and this is how operations team start joining us.

3) Funding – Our first eight centres were self-funded. But to further expand our footprint we received funding from SONG Investment Advisors – a fund backed by Soros Economic Development Fund, Omidyar Network and Google – and from Helion Venture Partners and Nexus Venture Partners.

As a senior doctor in this field, what would be your advice to the budding ophthalmologists?

Never be impatient with patient and never operate a patient till you are confident about your surgical skills.

by Usha Nandini

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