Aravind Eye Care System, the world’s largest eye care provider that has developed innovative technologies allowing it to perform 300,000 eye surgeries each year—70 percent subsidized or free for the poor—has been selected to receive the 2010 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize of $1.5 million.

LOS ANGELES, CA, March 5, 2010 – Aravind Eye Care System, the world’s largest eye care provider that has developed innovative technologies allowing it to perform 300,000 eye surgeries each year—70 percent subsidized or free for the poor—has been selected to receive the 2010 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize of $1.5 million. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation presents the annual award, the world’s largest humanitarian prize, to an organization that is doing extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering. More than 200 nominations are received from throughout the world, and an independent international jury makes the final selection.

There are 45 million blind people in the world, the majority in the developing world, and 12 million of these are in India. Because of extreme sun and genetics, Indians get cataracts in their 40s and 50s versus 60s and 70s in the United States. Without surgery they go blind, losing many of their productive years. Realizing that it was possible to end much of the unnecessary blindness in his country, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, known as Dr. V., upon his retirement in 1976 from government health service, mortgaged his home to start an eye clinic—Aravind—with 11 beds in a rented house in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

As of 2009, Aravind has handled over 29 million outpatient visits and performed over 3.6 million surgeries. It operates five Aravind hospitals in India supported by a network of clinics, manages four others, and has well established research laboratories and a manufacturing facility producing high quality, low cost ophthalmic supplies. It is now expanding its model globally, establishing seven eye hospitals in Bangladesh with Grameen Bank and training all the staffs. It has worked with over 260 eye hospitals from India and other developing countries to expand their capacity to address eye diseases and conditions in addition to cataracts. It has participated in establishing national eye care plans for India, Rwanda and Eritrea.

“Aravind is a remarkable enterprise and its scale of impact on millions of patients is phenomenal,” said Steven M. Hilton, CEO and president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. “In a 30-year quest to end blindness in India, Aravind has developed innovative technologies that are now a model for both the developed and developing world.”

“The worldwide visibility and recognition that comes with the Hilton Humanitarian Prize will allow us to bring our healthcare model to alleviate suffering in many more parts of the world,” said Dr. P. Namperumalsamy, Aravind’s chairman. “Over 80 percent of the developing world’s blindness and impaired vision is needless, causing enormous personal and family suffering and severely limiting a country’s ability to develop. Our goal is to manage 100 hospitals worldwide by 2015 to provide sight to many millions and the Hilton Humanitarian Prize will help us reach this goal.”

Image of Aravind Eye Care System at work
Aravind Eye Care System

Inspired by the fast-food giant McDonald’s capability to replicate the same quality and efficiency anywhere in the world, Dr. V. adapted this concept to eye care, standardizing everything from systems and equipment to training. Nurses can be transferred to any Aravind facility and immediately start work. An assembly-line approach to surgery increases productivity tenfold. Nurses and paramedical staff handle routine tasks while doctors concentrate on diagnosis and surgeries. While a typical ophthalmologist might perform 250 to 400 surgeries annually, an Aravind doctor will average 2,000 or more. Equipment that typically might be used a few times a day is used 30 times a day at Aravind. The result is that Aravind runs at one-fifth the cost of similar hospitals, leading to its model being replicated in other countries and by other medical disciplines.

“Every 15 minutes a doctor at an Aravind Eye Hospital completes an operation and restores someone’s eyesight,” reported Hilton. “Yet, with this great efficiency, there is no compromise on quality or care. Aravind is so respected for its unique model that students from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Yale and the University of California at San Francisco come to India for training.”

Aravind also has developed a cost-effective revenue model in which only 30 percent of patients pay and the remaining 70 percent are treated free or almost free. It depends on volume and efficiency to keep its low-cost structure, establishing eye camps in remote villages that bring in about half of its patients. Many are treated on-site with even prescription glasses dispensed in rural camps.

When intraocular lenses were introduced, Aravind sought to use them but, at $200 each, they were too costly. So Aravind set up Aurolab to manufacture these lenses which now cost as little as $2 on average and are currently supplied to 120 countries, commanding 8 percent of the global market. Aurolab also manufactures other supplies such as ophthalmic drops, sutures and lasers for treating diabetic retinopathy. Aravind has accomplished all of this without assuming debt and with minimal charitable contributions.

About the Hilton Humanitarian Prize

The 2010 prize will be presented for the first time at the Global Philanthropy Forum’s 9th annual conference at a dinner on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, at the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City, CA. The Hilton Prize jury includes: Princess Salimah Aga Khan, international ambassador for SOS Children’s Villages; Catherine Bertini, former executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme and professor of public administration, Syracuse University; Gro Harlem Brundtland, MPH, former director-general of the World Health Organization and former prime minister of Norway; Eric M. Hilton, director, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and son of Conrad Hilton; James R. Galbraith, director, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation; Olara A. Otunnu, president of LBL Foundation for Children, former UN under-secretary-general and special representative for children and armed conflict and current candidate for president of Uganda; and Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Laureate in economics and Lamont University professor at Harvard University.

Former Hilton Prize recipients are recognized leaders in the humanitarian world and include: PATH (Seattle, WA), 2009, BRAC (Bangladesh), 2008; Tostan (Senegal), 2007; Women for Women International (Washington, DC), 2006; Partners In Health (Massachusetts), 2005; Heifer International (Arkansas), 2004; International Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (Denmark), 2003; SOS Children’s Villages (Austria), 2002; St. Christopher’s Hospice (England), 2001; Casa Alianza (Costa Rica), 2000; African Medical and Research Foundation (Kenya), 1999; Doctors Without Borders (France), 1998; International Rescue Committee (New York), 1997; and Operation Smile (Virginia), 1996.