Interview With Bharath Balasubramaniam

Recently KnowTheGlow had the chance to speak with Mr. Bharath Balasubramaniam, President of the Sankara Eye Foundation and Eye Institute, an organization at the forefront of universal comprehensive eye care in India.  With its unique and effective hybrid model Sankara aims to eliminate curable blindness in India for all and to do so in a self-sustaining way that reaches all of India’s citizens.  At the start of their conversation, Megan Webber, Co-Founder of KnowTheGlow, shared coincidentally with Bharath that even though they were continents and oceans apart, their worlds had a connection here in the States– Bharath had traveled to the US to speak at a global benefit incubator at Santa Clara University where Global Outreach director Helene Dameris’ son is currently an engineering student.  Bharath added that Sankara Eye Foundation, USA has its US headquarters in Milpitas, California, and has over a thousand energetic volunteers around the United States.  Back in India, Sankara Eye Foundation, India has 12 eye hospitals in 9 states. What started out initially as a free clinic, rapidly grew into an extensive eye care program where they do outreach camps with teams of doctors, bringing patients who then need referrals from the rural areas to the hospital for treatment and then even assists in returning them back home for after care.  Care is not limited to those who are able to pay and in this way, those who can pay are actually subsidizing those who can not afford even a bus ride to the city.  Bharath then laid out the various programs that Sankara offers. The Gift of Vision program addresses the large challenge due to cataracts in India where over 70-75% of blindness is a result of cataracts.  The program has successfully performed more than 2.3 million surgeries to date. 

The Rainbow Program which caters to school-age children ages 4-15 is an innovative program that trains teachers and Anganwadi to help identify eye problems and refer the children back to a base hospital.   Teachers are tasked with the first level of screening only and are provided with training and eye charts and rope to measure accurate distance for screening.  Everything beyond the initial screening is performed by a trained eye care professional.  Bharath explained how important it is that all teachers and Anganwadi are trained for the basic initial eye screening.  They are asked to come to one of the Sankara Eye hospitals for their training so that they understand the ethos of the program– Sankara is  first and foremost a service-based institution.   The Rainbow Program also has a Mobile Vision bus that hopes to screen 6 million children over the next 2 years.  Additionally, Sankara has the Swagatham program (Swagatham translates to “Welcome” in Sanskrit) This program caters to children from birth to 5 years of age and consists of programs aimed at assisting new mothers with the help of pediatric ophthalmologists who also screen for Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP).  

Over the past year, Sankara has faced delays and setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Screening camps are slowly opening back up but await government approval to be fully operational again.   During the lockdown, Sankara realized that they needed to start work on additional walk-in vision centers. There are currently 17 but the plan is to scale up to 22 and then 50 by year-end. They are seeing a lot more cases walk in because of the 2-year backlog of delayed treatment.  The hospitals which were performing 500 surgeries per day have needed to scale back to 300 surgeries per day across all centers. 

Megan asked Bharath how they are able to get the word out about the incredible services that Sankara offers.  Bharath touted the importance of community mobilization and consistency as the key to their success. Sankara tries to be consistent in the dates they come to the villages and continue visits so that each time they come they are building up trust and comfort amongst the villagers. They try to do ‘auto publicity’ three to four days before camps with cars and buses sharing announcements and posters, but the most effective promotion is from the people who have benefited from the services of Sankara. They become the best ambassadors for the village.  Sankara staff and physicians work hard to help make the villagers more comfortable during the screening days by showing a relaxed familiarity mixed with the greatest respect, even calling them grandma and grandpa in some cases.

Megan and  Bharath foresee great potential in working alongside one another as KTG works to help promote awareness of the glow to help ensure early detection of childhood eye conditions and Sankara works to treat or cure them if caught in time.  KnowTheGlow is honored to highlight the extraordinary work of Bharath Balasubramaniam and the incredible medical staff and volunteers who are making an impact all across India, reaching even the most difficult to reach, through their work at the Sankara Eye Foundation.