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They have impressive foreign degrees and corporate background... and they have invested their acumen into running a well-equipped ambulance service in Mumbai.

Shaffi Mather
Shaffi Mather

Paromita Pain

With a stint at the London School of Economics as a Chevening Gurukul Senior Scholar in Leadership and Excellence, and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Shaffi Mather had an impressive career ahead as vice-president at Reliance Infocomm.

Today he is Director all right, but not in any corporate set-up. Mather heads the Ambulance Access for All Project and is responsible for setting up the integrated Advanced Life Support (not for profit) Ambulance Service on a pilot basis in Mumbai city, in association with the London Ambulance Service.

Sharing in this endeavour are other young professionals, such as Ravi Krishna, Sweta Mangal, Naresh Jain and Manish Sacheti, who have equally impressive backgrounds in Ivy League institutes and blue chip companies.

Universal access

Ambulance Access for All is meant to make available advanced life-support ambulance service anytime, anywhere, through an easy-to-remember four-digit telephone number (1298 in Mumbai). The London Ambulance Service (LAS), a British government agency and among the world's best ambulance services, offers training and other assistance for the project.

Mather was involved with the LAS as part of his Chevening Gurukul Scholarship where he studied the working of the ambulance service.

"It also gave me the opportunity to build relations within the LAS. We have a formal MoU in place whereby LAS is committed to help us in various areas," he says.

The service was formally launched in Mumbai on May 21, 2005, and currently operates 10 Advanced Life Support Ambulances that cater to 25-odd patients a day on an average. There are plans to start a similar service in Kerala.

On dialling `1298', the service entails dispatch of the nearest Life Support Ambulance (tracked using Global Positioning System on a real-time tracking system). The ambulances are equipped with the latest medical and communication devices that help keep the hospital emergency room posted on the condition of the incoming patient.

The network is backed by a sophisticated 24/7 control room equipped with digital mapping of the city, doctors and paramedics trained in US and UK standards through a 6-month Postgraduate Diploma in Emergency Medical Services (PGDEMS) degree, and drivers equipped with Basic Life Support (BLS) training and expertise in navigation, safety and speedy driving.

But what makes this sophisticated service truly unique is the fact that it charges patients according to their capacity to pay.

The charges vary, depending on the hospital requested by the patient. They are the highest for the high-end hospitals and lowest for Government hospitals, with the fee often waived in the case of needy patients.

"We hire our staff through professionally-structured interviews. There is a social stigma attached to ambulance services, mostly because ambulances in India are often used as hearses for carrying the dead rather than transporting patients. We made presentations to graduating students at various healthcare institutes, trying to debunk this myth. The best thing to happen to us was the association with the LAS and the British Council sponsoring training for 12 members of our staff in London. Three of our staff, Dr Paresh Navalkar, Dr Ajay Desai and Dr Percy Bharucha, were in London during the London blasts. They worked shoulder to shoulder with the LAS team, understanding how they handle emergencies," says Mather.

Mumbai floods

"The flood situation really stretched our capacities. On July 26, we received 51 calls during the floods. We attended eight calls. While our control room worked all through, the ambulances could not move because of the unprecedented traffic jam. We tried to co-ordinate local medical resources to reach patients who called, though with limited success.

"On July 27 we received 48 calls and attended 28. Many called for dead body transfers, which we relocated to the service providers in each area. We do not handle such transfers, as we believe it's a waste of precious life-saving medical resources. Two of our ambulances are currently involved in medical relief work in the affected areas," says Mather, recounting the days following the recent unprecedented rains in Mumbai.

All telecom operators in Mumbai have activated the number `1298' on a test basis to reach the Access for All Control room. The network is also trying to equip hospital emergency rooms with a user-group facility for incoming calls to enable information sharing whenever a patient is being brought in.

A personal journey

"Each of us in the group got interested in this project due to personal experiences. I was shaken up when my mother choked in her sleep. We just put her in the backseat of the car and drove to the hospital like mad. By God's grace and the pothole-filled road, the bumpy drive to hospital cleared her choking. It made me realise that in spite of having all necessary infrastructure, no one had put it together to have an integrated life-support ambulance service," says Mather.

Over Rs 2.5 crore have been invested in the project. "The seed money came from contributions of Rs 10,000 each from everyone involved in the project. When the project started taking critical shape, some of our families put up further sums. In the corporate sector, companies such as Tata AIG Life, Hindustan Petroleum, Playwin Foundation and State Bank of India are sponsoring the project for one year.

"Support has also come from the British Council, HDFC, Cyrus Guzder and other benefactors. Free publicity from Fame Cinemas, Fun Republic Cinemas, Radio City and others also helps. We are always looking for doctors, paramedics, and socially-committed management and mass communication graduates. Of course, though our pay scales are competitive, they are not in the upper brackets; the job responsibilities and satisfaction will, of course, be unparalleled," he says.

Picture by Shashi Ashiwal

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 19, 2005)
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