Aster DM Healthcare is striving to make healthcare more affordable, accessible

Aster DM Healthcare is present in five states with 13 hospitals in India


As the world struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic, big healthcare companies with international operations are chipping in with their resources and expertise to equip governments, researchers and public health experts with the weapons they need to win the war against the novel coronavirus. One such company, Aster DM Healthcare, a renowned integrated healthcare firm in the Middle East, has been supporting India’s fight. Here are excerpts from an interview with Dr Azad Moopen, founder chairman and managing director, Aster DM Healthcare, and Alisha Moopen, deputy managing director and CEO.

In what way is Aster DM Healthcare helping in India’s fight against Covid-19?

As a healthcare organisation, Aster has been at the epicenter of managing this crisis in all countries in which we have a presence. In India, we had been supporting the state government of Kerala, in various ways. A donation of Rs 2.5 crores was made to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to support the excellent efforts by the Kerala government to contain the spread of Covid-19. Through our five hospitals in Kerala, we made a commitment to dedicate 750 beds for accepting patients referred by the government authorities. We were also among the first to start Tele-Health Centers for providing out-patient consultation for patients in panic or people seeking medical consultation on Covid-19 which can be accessed through the website and call centers of all Aster units in India. Major amount of grass-root support is being provided through Aster Volunteers, our CSR programme, who are striving each day to screen as many people as possible in remote areas of Kerala, conduct awareness programmes and also support the needy in the current crisis with food kits and medical supplies. Till date, 33,653 meals have been provided and 15,186 medical support kits have been distributed.

A number of healthcare workers from India have been called to the UAE for helping in the Covid fight. Will these workers be retained in the long term? Also, What are the facilities for safety being provided to them?

Azad Moopen and Alisha Moopen Azad Moopen and Alisha Moopen

These healthcare workers are here to aid Aster and the UAE government in the fight against Covid-19. They are critical care nurses who have joined different government assigned centres and are responsible for managing positive cases. All measures are being taken by Aster and UAE Government to ensure their health and safety. They have received training, personal protection equipment to use at all times, secure methods of travel to and from the Covid-19 facilities and proper hospitality to ensure their health and well-being. They are here on assignments and will be joining our facilities back in India once it is over.

Could you comment on Aster Clinical Lab LLP providing RT-PCR confirmatory test service for Covid-19 in Bengaluru?

With the country slowly trying to emerge from the lockdown and resuming functionality, there would be immediate requirement to test, isolate and quarantine positive cases on a regular basis. This is one of the key ways to flatten the curve and break the chain of infection spread. It is with this thought that RT-PCR tests are being offered by Aster Labs in Bangalore and Aster MIMS in Calicut.

How is Aster involved in the med-tech start-up ecosystem to pivot technologies to respond to the immediate needs with regard to Covid-19?

At Aster, for a long while now, we have been discussing the need to focus on shifting the healthcare model from sick care to preventive care through digital innovation and now more than ever this need has become apparent. We are evolving our offering to take healthcare delivery to the homes of people through telemedicine, home care services, lab collection from home, E-ICUs and even online order and home delivery of prescription medicines. However, this is just the beginning. Our Aster Innovation Centre which was set up last year is proactively involved in working with innovators and med-tech incubators to identify unique solutions and path-breaking ideas that can make healthcare more affordable and easily accessible for larger number of people. Once identified, these innovators or start-ups can use our facilities in India and UAE for further research and support and jointly pivot new technologies.

Tell us about your Our New Earth microsite, which claims to support individuals make sense of the new normal way of living amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our New Earth is Aster’s effort to provide a one stop solution for every individual, irrespective of geographical or cultural differences, to help them thrive in the post lock-down world where many of us would be required to step out to resume daily lives or get adjusted to newer ways of functioning from home. It is our effort to help an individual holistically focus on physical, emotional and mental health to enable their readiness and preparedness to manage this crisis constructively. Using trusted sources of information and medical guidance brought under one umbrella, the site is a health, wellness and development focused ‘Guide On The New Normal’ to coach people to allow them to thrive in this new style of living with a focus on the different roles they play within a society for the self, for the parent in you, the employers/business owners as well as the employee.

Aster has carved its presence in India. Yet, it is still largely limited to five states. What do your plans hold for India, going forward? Will we see you establishing a bigger foothold here, especially in North India?

Aster DM Healthcare is present in Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra with 13 hospitals in India. The country, with its huge demand-supply gap offers lot of scope to cater to this population. There is lot of opportunity in South India. Our expansion plan includes adding one hospital every year in India, going forward. Our strategy is to have large hospitals in Tier-1 cities and metros, with an asset-light model. We also would like to add new business lines like Aster Labs and Aster Home Care in places where we have hospitals. Instead of spreading too thin across India, we would like to be thickly present in some part of India, initially. We are gradually looking at North India for expansion, especially the east and north-east. Although that is not a strategic plan as such, we may explore if there is a good asset available. Apart The National Health Authority (NHA) the agency that administers the PM led Ayushman Bharat Yojana has recently de-empanelled 171 hospitals due to fraudulent practices. The program provides a cover of up to Rs 5lakhs per family per year to approximately 50 crore beneficiaries.

The government in India spends hardly a small fraction of the GDP on health. Less than 30 percent of people’s healthcare needs are met by government institutions. Please comment.

The government of India allocated Rs 62,398 crore outlay for the healthcare sector in 2019-20, which was just 1 per cent of GDP. This should be increased to an ideal 2.5 per cent or around Rs 1,50,000 crore to drive the health sector fast forward. Along with the private spend of 1.5 per cent, the total GDP percent shall go to an acceptable 4 per cent. If compared globally, the government spend on healthcare in USA is 18 per cent of its GDP, France spends around 11 per cent of its GDP towards healthcare, Germany spends 10 per cent and UK spends roughly 9 per cent of its GDP towards healthcare. So the bottom line is that government must increase the healthcare spent.

What, according to you, is the right healthcare policy approach for India to follow?

Government has taken the right step by covering the marginalised population through the Ayushman Bharat. They should leave the healthcare of other people through self/company insurance. There has to be more of medical graduates and post- graduates to provide service when allocation goes up. The government should support establishment of medical colleges and other academic institutions.

You have earmarked 20 per cent of your wealth for the poor and the needy. Please comment.

I strongly believe that profit is a by-product and not the only purpose in healthcare. I have earmarked 20 per cent of my personal wealth for philanthropic activities enabling social change and helping people in need. For this, I have embarked on numerous social initiatives through Aster DM Foundation and Dr Moopen Family Foundation. Giving back to the society in which we operate has also been at the core of many of our activities at Aster DM Healthcare. While through business operations, the company strives to make quality healthcare more affordable and accessible for the masses, it is through the CSR initiatives that Aster DM Healthcare aims to break the vicious circle of poverty and a lack of access to healthcare. Aster Volunteers is the vehicle we channelise our philanthropic activities.

The concept of health insurance hasn’t taken off as successfully in India as it has in the UAE. Why do you think it is so? What’s your take on it?

The rollout of Ayushman Bharat has covered nearly 40 per cent of the population. I believe health insurance should have increased coverage through company and self-insurances. Also, health insurance in India does not cover outpatient, but is restricted to inpatient treatment and hospitalisation only. There are also hurdles like limited coverage under the health insurance and lack of awareness among the people, which forces patients to pay out-of-pocket on healthcare treatment. There is also the requirement for good policies for the old people.

Alisha Moopen, as a young and dynamic leader, how ready are you to take the baton from your father and how do you plan to make your mark on the larger Aster canvas?

When I joined the business in 2013, it took me some time to understand the sector and its intricacies across all the eight countries in which we operate, especially since I was coming in from the domains of finance and consulting. I learnt that, both through observing my father and deep diving into the domain, that healthcare needs to be accessible, outcome oriented, affordable across all segments, and wellness-focused. I focused my time and efforts on a key few areas–the biggest one has been institutionalising some of our chairman’s founding principles of service to humanity, integrity and excellence and as foundational components of the culture that we live and breathe across the group every day. In addition, I have also had the privilege of overseeing the strategic direction and development of the organisation, spearheading the expansion of the group into new, untapped markets and redefining healthcare with new consumer preferences and requirements. Our strategy for the next 10 years has already been penciled in, and my goal is to work with our teams to execute on this vision, and catapult Aster DM Healthcare onto the global stage as a leader in healthcare.

Aster has three rungs of hospitals and clinics. Medcare for high income groups, Aster for mid income families and Access for blue collar workers. But quality healthcare should be universal, without divisions and accessible to all... Isn’t it?

You are absolutely right, and that’s precisely why we aspire, every single day, to touch everyone in need–irrespective of their financial capabilities. Given the diverse mix of socio-economic groups in all the countries that we serve, our three brands have been created to cater to each and every segment of society for all their healthcare requirements. When someone is sick and walks into our facilities, irrespective of the brand on the wall and irrespective of their type of illness, they will be treated well. After all, that’s our promise, always. Because, at the core of any healthcare experience is the clinical outcome, and there is absolutely no compromise on this vital pillar across any of our brands. What does differ across the brands, however, is the types of services that are offered, and these range from factors such as the look and feel of the units to the waiting time within them.