Once upon a time, begins S.D. Gupta, director of Jaipur’s Institute of Health Management and Research (IHMR), nobody really thought about health economics or health financing or networking with non-profits. “People wondered what I was talking about,” he recalls of the early 1980s when he struggled to explain the contours of his subject.
Twenty-four years and 35 research projects later, the institute has not only made “health management” an accepted term in the jargon of the development sector in India, it has also bred competition for itself. “Now we face competition for every project or research study we pitch for. We are suffering from our own efforts of making this field popular,” says Gupta.
But that’s a good problem to have, right? Good problems such as these help Gupta place more than 100 students every year in jobs, at a time when corporate hospitals, state governments and drug makers are scrambling for skilled people. “It is a trade-off,” he muses, an epidemiologist who got his doctoral degree from the US’ first research university, John Hopkins.
IHMR, formerly the Indian Institute of Health Management and Research—it dropped the extra “I” a few years ago after the words “National” or “Indian” were made the exclusive preserve of government educational institutes—was established in 1984 by a charitable society set up by the Aggarwals promoter group that now owns a host of businesses in logistics, power and textiles.
Till 1989, IHMR remained a research institute—an activity that still characterizes the institute and remains its biggest revenue churner. The teaching courses took off almost six years later in 1995, when a rejuvenated Gupta returned from the US, infected with the Ivy League academician’s virus that would eventually metamorphose into the country’s best health management institute.
Gupta introduced the teaching courses for the first time in 1989, but within a year he took off to John Hopkins to pursue his doctoral degree and the programme went downhill. It was totally grounded in 1994 and resurrected in a redesigned format in 1995 when Gupta rejoined it.
The institute currently awards postgraduate diplomas with specialization in pharmaceutical management, hospital management and health management for administering the public health systems. It takes 120 students every year who have sat through the MAT entrance, followed group discussion and an interview.
The courses in the two-year programme cut across bio-statistics, epidemiology, marketing, organizational behaviour to health economics, quality assurance and various research methods. The hospital management specialization takes the students deeper into issues such as legal framework, health insurance, hospital planning, waste, materials and equipment management.
Those specializing in health management are equipped with the knowledge of programme planning, implementation, non-governmental organization management and applied epidemiology while the group looking at drug makers—a relatively new area for IHMR—branches off into drug production, marketing, clinical trials, patent laws and regulatory affairs.
Many institutes give the cliché of how they carve out students’ personality and build communication skills. IHMR walks the talk. For the first seven days, every new student is put through something called “human process labs”, in which they are fielded before half a dozen behavioural scientists. They are then put through ice-breaking communication exercises, group dynamics, games and therapy sessions. A good portion of IHMR students comes from the smaller, mofussil towns and such “labs” help add confidence and effervescence to their diligent and malleable minds.
“Students come from different backgrounds and such exercises harmonize them, bond them together,” said S.K. Puri, a doctor and retired army brigadier who is now the academics dean for IHMR.
The academician, who used to be a paratrooper in the Indian army and went to Sri Lanka in 1987 as part of the controversial Indian Peace Keeping Force, had ample opportunity to master his subjects. He had put the 1,000-bed hospital in war-torn Jaffna back on track, battling insufficient supplies of oxygen, blood, anaesthesia and linen even as casualties poured in faster than his hands could work on them.
Managing any hospital—even the trickiest ones—seems like a pudding after that, says Puri. His tryst with war-like life situations seems to have rubbed off on his students. “One thing that this institute taught us was crisis management. Every student coming out of here is ready to say ‘yes’ to any challenge that comes his way,” said Sangeeta Tikyani, a pass-out of 2007 batch and currently employed with Gujarat government.
In charge of district hospitals in Junagadh and Bhuj, she is upgrading them to qualify for accreditation from the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals. She turned down several offers from corporate groups to choose this because “there is so much to do in public health care and the fruits of my labour are so quick to come by”.
Some others are less altruistic. Pankaj Kumar, 26, and Tikyani’s junior by a year who has also been hired by the Gujarat government, is eyeing a business in medical tourism over time.
Students such as Tikyani and Kumar are attracting recruiters over the years. Corporate hospitals such as Apollo Group, Max Healthcare and Wockhardt Hospitals are scouting for recruitees along with information technology firms such as Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Infosys Technologies Ltd and Wipro Ltd, drug makers Cipla Ltd and Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd, public health organizations such as Oxfam International, HelpAge India and Janani (of Patna).
Interestingly, the biggest employer in IHMR is the government of Gujarat. Its peers, the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and—more recently—Orissa, have also begun catching up.
The fee of Rs3.40 lakh—along with a laptop, insists Puri—for an entire course doesn’t stick out as an outlier in an industry when its metropolitan counterparts charge double that amount.
IHMR boasts of agreements with a dozen universities such as John Hopkins, New Jersey Institute of Technology and University of Heidelberg in Germany.
One peeve, however. The hectic pace of studies in the institute has led to a sort of pedagogic amnesia. The process has created a rote-and-barf routine on the syllabi as the students are always on a trot. Both Puri and Gupta acknowledged this flaw and hope that moving to a semester system from this year on, will remedy that.