Dr Vishal Rao U S was recently in news for developing Aum voice prosthesis, a low cost (Rs 50) device to give cancer patients their lost voice back. He is a senior consultant oncologist – head & neck surgery and in-charge of head & neck services, department of surgical oncology at HealthCare Global (HCG) Cancer Centre, Bangalore. He is also a member of the High Powered Committee – Tobacco Control, Government of Karnataka.
In an email interview with India Medical Times, Dr Vishal Rao talks about his brainchild. He asks the young doctors to dare to dream and then wake up and work hard to fulfil the dream.
First of all, congratulations on the success of your innovation Aum voice prosthesis and for giving it such a beautiful name. Tell us more about your brainchild – Aum.
Speech and communication in our society forms not only a basic tenet to sustain life force, but also a right for freedom, peace, justice, and dignity. Only due to cost constraints these patients were bereft of this essential means of communication.
This realisation dawned on us when I had a throat cancer patient from a village in Chikkaballapur district. Mr Sannathimayya came to me for treatment of throat cancer illness. He was already operated and his voice box removed. His main complaint was: “How can I speak again? I cannot afford the voice prosthesis. They say it costs up to Rs 30,000.” This was immediately followed by my friend Shashank Mahesh, co-inventor of this prosthesis, coming to my room for a casual visit. He is an industrialist with finance background. While sharing this quandary and desire to help this patient through donations to procure a prosthesis, he emphatically replied: “Why don’t you develop one – I’ll give you the industrial expertise and you give me the technical — lets go out and make a difference to these poor patients.”
Most patients in India who have throat cancer have it owing to smoking of Beedi and cigarette. A majority of them belong to the poor class and present to us in advanced stages, when they are not fit for organ preservation. They end up losing their voice box. And find it difficult to afford a voice prosthesis after the removal of their voice box.
AUM has three elements to it — A signifies ‘creation’, U signifies ‘sustenance’ and M signifies ‘annihilation’. This is not a religious connotation, but represents a primeval sound that signifies three defining principles of this universe.
We named this AUM as after these patients lose their voice box, they cannot speak again. This prosthesis gives them a rebirth into the world of communication which resonates and resounds all these aspects of creation. This prosthesis should come as a thanks giving to the almighty and help them serve and pay it forward to the needy.
Please tell us something about your journey as a surgical oncologist and a head and neck surgeon.
I started my medical career with my medical schooling at Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College (JNMC), Belgaum. I also did my postgraduation at the same college. I did my oncology training at Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai at the department of head and neck surgical oncology. Following this I did a brief stint as a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh in the US and returned to India. I joined the regional cancer centre — Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology, Bangalore where I worked as an assistant professor for a period of around two years. Presently, I am with HCG Cancer Centre in Bangalore as in-charge of head and neck services.
Head and neck cancers are very common in India. What do you think is the way to prevent it or at least reduce the mortality?
Tobacco contributes to more than 90% of the cancers of head and neck region. This is a preventable disease. Tobacco control is the only way ahead. Ideally this department need not exist if not for tobacco. We are busy finding a new antidote when we can eradicate the poison.
What is the inspiration behind becoming an innovator? How did you get into the field of research?
I fondly recollect the words of Sri Sathya Sai Baba who said: “The end goal of education is knowledge and the end goal of knowledge is service.” His super speciality hospital at Puttaparthi where I volunteered inspired me immensely. It was the only centre without a billing counter. I saw the finest spirit of service in the hospitals and in their operating rooms. This, I must say, was the most inspiring event that made me think of innovating simple devices that would largely help us reach out to our patients. Besides this, my teachers, my parents and my wife and son continue to inspire me. I have always remembered that we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. The greatest inventions of today can be considered the biggest errors of tomorrow.
From the beginning, I’ve always been interested in the field of research and publications. We cannot progress without innovations or research. Even our work can become monotonous without research. It was Dr Anil D’cruz, Director of Tata Memorial Hospital, who stimulated, motivated and inspired me to pursue research and sustain my academic zeal. Dr Mandar Deshpande, Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, Dr Devendra Chaukar, Dr Prathamesh Pai who spent the late hours in Tata Hospital teaching us the nuances in voice rehabilitation for throat cancer patients also inspired me.
Among the others who strongly influenced my life is Justice M N Venkatachaliah, former chief Justice of India, who is a mentor, guide and figure I look upon to.
What are the challenges that you faced while coming up with this innovation?
A key challenge that we faced was our own cynicism and mental blocks about the feasibility of executing this vision. Everything we assumed was not feasible only because we did not learn effectively from our failures.
The Aum Voice Prosthesis is said to be available for fifty rupees. How did you make it possible?
Our intent in developing this device was to reach out to the needy at the most uncorrupted costs. Thus there was a need to blend the best standards with functionality and affordability. This was feasible only because we did not charge for our time and talent. Nor did several of the manufacturers, suppliers, engineers, physicists and technical experts who understanding the intent of this product came forward to spare their time and efforts. We all created a demarcation between the necessity of life and privileges. Thus addressing, it came together to make this happen.
What are the other fields that a researcher should be associated with for one’s innovation to take the next step and reach the target audience?
The most important areas that need research in India today are genetics, drug delivery, electronic medical records, big data in medical analytics, prediction and prevention. There is a strong need for concerted efforts to integrate talents from various fields such as engineering, electronics, life sciences to come together and work cohesively to advance patient care and make it affordable. We need to stop depending on the West to buy medical devices or innovate products. We need to innovate for our patients’ needs.
It is often said that in India doctors are so busy with treating patients that they don’t get enough time to do research or invent something new. What’s your comment on this?
Ideally speaking “A busy man is a man who has time for everything, the rest is poor imitation”.
What are your other research projects?
We are working with chemical experts and physicists on a new hypothesis in the area of oncology. We are also pursuing some interesting work to address the need of much neglected voice rehabilitation in neuromuscular degenerative disorders.
What’s your message for the young doctors?
The word ‘health’ is often misconstrued and has become synonymous with diseases in today’s world. This is because medical care only focuses on diseases. Repeating the words of Sri Sathya Sai Baba — “A healthy society should have less doctors, less hospitals and less illness” — that is the goal of health. We need to reinstate the respect and faith that patients had in doctors, thorough 3Cs — improved ‘concern’, effective ‘communication’ and eliminating ‘commercialisation’.
Lastly, ambition and purpose are a lethal combination. When they meet inside, you change. Dare to dream and then be wise to wake up and work hard.
by Usha Nandini M