Acupuncture For India’s Poor; Middle and upper-middle class patients pay between 800 and 1,000 rupees ($15 – $18) for a session of acupuncture. This subsidizes the cost of running the clinic for the underprivileged, who pay 20 rupees a session

April 7, 2013, 9:00 AM

Acupuncture For India’s Poor

By Shanoor Seervai

Sheetal Tupare sits in the waiting room of the Barefoot Acupuncturists clinic in Mumbai’s Vijay Nagar slum. She is accompanying her uncle, who was left partially paralyzed from a stroke eight months ago, for his second session of acupuncture.

Ms. Tupare has also been treated at the clinic. The 25-year-old went there last year because her menstrual cycle was irregular.

“The medicines other doctors gave me only made my stomach hurt more,” she says, adding that she felt better after three months of regular acupuncture treatment.

Barefoot Acupuncturists runs five clinics — three in Mumbai and two in rural Tamil Nadu — that provide low-cost acupuncture to poor communities. The organization was founded by Walter Fischer, a Belgian businessman-turned-acupuncturist, in 2008.He had run a free clinic in Vijay Nagar with a Swiss acupuncturist called Jacques Beytrison in May 2007. Mr. Fischer remembers it as a success. The pair provided more than 500 treatments, but working in the peak of Mumbai’s summer left Mr. Fischer tired and fed up.

He traveled north to Kashmir, where he met a local tailor. As soon as the tailor realized that Mr. Fischer was a “doctor who used needles,” he invited a string of villagers with health problems to his home.

One of his patients was an old shepherd, who he treated on the floor of the tailor’s house with 15 people watching. “As the first needle pierced the old shepherd’s skin, I had a vision that this is what I wanted do with my life,” he says.

Mr. Fischer says he realized that the poor, because of the physically demanding labor they perform, are most acutely affected by pain. Acupuncture is a viable treatment for people who don’t have easy access to hospitals and mainstream medicine, he adds: it “is simple and flexible—it can be used in a posh clinic, a jungle or a slum.”

At the end of the summer of 2007, Mr. Fischer returned to Belgium, sold his car and other possessions, and then came back to Mumbai. He opened his first low-cost acupuncture clinic in Vijay Nagar in January 2008. The clinic was only seven square meters in size, had two beds, no toilet and no running water, but that didn’t stop the patients from coming.

In May 2009, Barefoot moved to a five-bed clinic that now gets around 30 patients each day, says co-founder Ujwala Patil, a resident of Vijay Nagar who was Mr. Fischer’s assistant during that first summer clinic.

“We try to create a family atmosphere in the clinic. It’s like their second home,” she says, adding that about 80% of patients, including women who work as domestic help, complain of chronic pain.

Mr. Fischer and Ms. Patil feel that “humanitarian acupuncture” has an even greater impact in rural areas. Patients in Tamil Nadu are mostly farm laborers who work in the fields for as little as 100 rupees ($1.8) a day and often can’t afford treatment from other doctors or at other clinics.

In the first year, Mr. Fischer funded the clinic in Vijay Nagar himself. Then he started raising money from private donors. Ms. Patil says it cost around 2.5 million rupees ($46,000) to run the five clinics in 2012. That year, Barefoot Acupuncturists raised around half its money via a “donor clinic” held twice a week.

Middle and upper-middle class patients pay between 800 and 1,000 rupees ($15 – $18) for a session of acupuncture. This subsidizes the cost of running the clinic for the underprivileged, who pay 20 rupees a session.

Khanta Bassum, a 23-year-old who has been partially paralyzed since she was 15, says even this is too expensive. But she continues to visit Barefoot Acupuncturists’ clinic in Dharavi three times a week.

“I used to stumble when I walked and was afraid to speak, but now I am able to walk and talk to anyone,” she says.

Indian acupuncturists and volunteers, mostly from abroad, staff the clinics.

Mr. Fischer says he wants to develop a training manual and guide for treating patients in diverse environments. Rather than opening new clinics, which is expensive and time consuming, he hopes to use the handbook to train staff at existing non-profit organizations.

Mr. Fischer describes this project as a “Mobile International Training Center,” which he hopes is up and running by 2016. If the model is effective, acupuncture can be used to treat hundreds of thousands of patients who don’t have access to healthcare, he says.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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