Hailing from the ‘First Family of Diabetes’ in India, Change Agent Dr. V Mohan continues to trump the odds and scale new peaks as he lays down a research based ecosystem to take on Diabetes in the country and beyond. His exploits will soon be captured in a book by Penguin India.
Scion of the ‘Father of Diabetology’ Prof. M. Viswanathan, and Padma Shri Awardee, Dr V Mohan (M.D., FRCP - London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ireland, Ph.D., D.Sc., D.Sc - Hon. Causa, FNASc, FASc, FNA, FACE, FACP, FTWAS, MACP, FRS - Edinburgh) is a towering persona in the diabetes landscape in the country and beyond. He is also the Chairman & Chief of Diabetology at Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre and President & Director at Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, Chennai, India
Powered by Dr Mohan’s dictum, ‘Today’s Research is Tomorrow’s Practice’, his teams are changing the way India views and responds to Diabetes by ushering a new ecosystem which uniquely combines diagnosis and treatment with research and education – along with a strong ethos of selfless social service. It is a refreshing and much-needed disruption that is playing a big role in improving clinical care for the affliction, and taking diabetes intervention to the next level.
We start this story by enquiring about Dr. Mohan’s driving passions and visions in life, to which the illustrious change architect responds spontaneously, “I am a diabetes specialist and my passion is Diabetology (the science and art of diabetes). My passion for this was kindled by my father Prof. M. Viswanathan, who was a pioneer of diabetology in India. Due to certain circumstances, he had to resign his position as Hon. Professor of Medicine at the Government Stanley Medical Hospital in the year 1970. Around this time, when I was deliberating on what to take up as my career, my father invited me to take up medicine so that I could help him in his future work in the field of diabetes. It seemed like an attractive option for me and the rest is history, so to speak. Hence, right from the age of 18 years when I joined the first MBBS course doing Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry, I started working with my father in the field of diabetes and since then there has been no looking back. The fire in the belly which was lit at that time continues to burn bright in the current time, and this is what makes me get up in the morning everyday, excitedly looking forward to another fulfilling day’s work.”
Dr V Mohan is the eldest son of Prof. M. Viswanathan, who is popularly known as ‘Father of Diabetology’ in India. After completing high school at St. Mary’s High School and obtaining a state rank, Dr Mohan pursued Pre-university from Loyola College (Chennai)standing first in the University in the science group. He joined the Madras Medical College subsequently, and remains proud to have belonged to the famous 1971MBBS batchthat was voted ‘Best batch ever in the history of the College’ on the occasion of the institution’s 175th year celebrations. He continued his post graduation(MD) in General Medicine in the same college before taking up clinical research, going on to secure a Ph.D and a Doctor of Science (D.Sc)in the field of diabetes by thesis.
It was during his college days that Dr. Mohan met his future wife Dr.Rema Mohan, who later specialized in diabetic eye diseases and became the first Ph.D in the field of Ophthalmology in India. His only daughter Anjana is also a Diabetologist, as is his son-in-law Dr. Ranjit Unnik rishnan and he “feels blessed” that they both work with him at his centre. In fact, there are several other Diabetologists in the family - including his younger brother, brother-in-law and niece. Both his sisters are PhD's and work in the field of diabetes as well. In that sense, almost the entire family tree is devoted to the subject of diabetes.
In all fairness, Diabetes isn’t the only passion of this changemaker. In fact, when he was in school, what Dr Mohan really aspired to do was write and be a poet. However, when his father’s work on diabetes at the Stanley Medical College was suddenly interrupted, he called the young Mohan aside and requested him to take up medicine. Like a true visionary, Dr. Mohan spotted the future instantly, interpreting the turn of events as a divine intervention and opportunity that would allow him to successfully combine his hunger for writing by becoming a researcher and a scientist. “It proved to be the turning point in my life”, the doctor reminisces.
Today diabetes affects nearly 80 million people in India and itis growing rapidly. Hence, there is a great need for providing specialised diabetes care in remote area of country where such specialised treatment did not exist earlier. The family's visionary disruption of the space many years back marked the very first efforts by any institution to address this need. In 1971when Dr Mohan started out working with his father, diabetes was still not recognised as a speciality in India. The family pioneered a model of ‘Total Diabetes Care’ at relatively affordable costs. It proved to be a game changer. Before long, Dr Mohan and his family and teams were expanding their network through both proprietary institutions (that were owned by the family) and through various clinics. Parallely, ripple effects saw several others being inspired by the mission, and diabetes centers started coming up all over India. “It would be fair to say that my father’s vision and my early work contributed largely to the establishment of Diabetology as a speciality in India”, says Dr. MOHAN.
Engineering transformation – not just in the clinical space but in the mind of the masses where a behavioural shift must first take root for true change to happen – is not for the faint of heart or purpose. Even those with the force of conviction to drive them forward – such as Dr. Mohan – must take on adversaries that inevitably resist progress. So what have been the setbacks he has experienced and what have been the learnings gained? The inspirational figure mulls before sharing, “After spending 20 years with my father, establishing the MV Hospital for Diabetes and the Diabetes Research Centre, my wife and I had to leave that institution. We had no money in the bank and were literally down to zero, or I would say, even ‘minus’, as we had borrowed large sums of money from the bank. This was in the year 1991. Then began our second innings, where we started literally from scratch, buildingour new institutions. Today, Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre has 50 branches across 30 cities and 8 states of India.”
Financial challenges were not the only roadblocks Dr Mohan and his teams had to overcome. There was also opposition from the profession itself to tackle, as many people did not accept the concept of Diabetology as aspeciality. However we had several friends and well-wishers who helped us along the way, both in our clinical work as well as in our research. One such person, I must mention is Prof N.K.Ganguly who was at that time the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research. Prof Ganguly supported several of our research projects. Dr. Anji Reddy,Chairman of Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, became a close friend of mine and he encouraged me to dream big. Thanks to the support of such friends and well wishers, we were able to grow rapidly. The Government also extended a lot of support at different stages of the journey”, the great mind gratefully acknowledges.
“The learnings which came from thisis that, as long as you have self confidence, faith in God and work hard, it’s always possible to rebuild your whole life. I also realized that resilience, focus and passion are` the most important characteristics necessary to be successful in one's life”, Dr Mohan distils a lifetime of learning in few, touching words.
And what about the next generation of leaders who aspire to follow in the footsteps of trailblazers like him? What advice would he like to share with them? Dr. Mohan responds, “My biggest recommendation to young leaders is that you should think big, but start small. You should develop a grand vision, but then start taking baby steps. Soon your work will snowball into something very big which even you may not have imagined. I would advise the next generation and aspiring students and others not to be afraid to dream big. But then you should also work very hard in order to convert your dreams into a reality."
Predictably enough, honours and accolades have been showered on this passionate change leader from all quarters. “I have been blessed with many awards, but to name a few, the Dr. B.C. Roy National Award by the Medical Council of India, the highest award for a medical doctor in India. The Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Centenary Award by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the highest award for biomedical research in India, the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award given by the Government of India, the Harold Rifkin Distinguished Award for the Cause of Diabetes, which is one of the highest awards given by the American Diabetes Association. I was humbled that I am the first, and so far the only Indian, to have received this Award. I have been honoured with Fellowships from all the three Science Academies of India and Fellowships from all the four Royal Colleges of Physicans of UK and Ireland and in addition to Awards, Fellowships and Doctorates from USA, UK, Germany, Australia, Canada and other countries”, says the clinician/scientist who wears a million hats, each sporting a million fulgent feathers.
Dr Mohan has also been actively sharing and seeding his knowledge within the community to build the next line of leaders. “We have initiated an education academy which trains not only physicians and diabetologists, but also ophthalmologists,nurses, dieticians, and lab technicians. Thus an entire ‘DiabetesEco-system’ has been created by us and this makes me both proud and happy.”
Drivenby an active sense of social consciousness and responsibility, Dr. Mohan has been extending the healing touch of his expertise to those who are strapped for resources and the underprivileged. He elaborates his social endeavours, “We were also able to set up several free diabetes clinics throughwhich we are treating thousands of poor and needy patients completely free of cost, including supply of diabetes medicines.We are also treating hundreds of poor children with Type 1 diabetes, who are also provided free insulin.”
Despite his many rewarding passions and the awards they have fetched, Dr. Mohan’s greatest satisfaction comes from the deep research work he does. “As I had an early start in life in research, even as an undergraduate medical student, I was able to do serious research which very few doctors in our country have had the opportunity to do.” Today, with over 1350 research publications (with a h index of 135 and over 134,000 citations of his work) – a peak acknowledged in knowing circles as a world record by a practicing doctor – Dr. Mohan’s insights and wisdom has touched and transformed the lives of millions of people - not only in India, but in different parts of the world.
The fact that his daughter and son-in-law works with him is another great sense of fulfilment for the man.
So what are the milestones Dr. Mohan has in his crosshairs for the oncoming time? What does the road ahead look like? “As we work in multiple disciplines, i.e. in healthcare, research, education and charity, I would like to expand on all of these areas so that, the work that we are doing can benefit many more people”, reveals this committed harbinger of change, giving us a peek of things to come.
For a man who has travelled an eventful career trajectory featuring several summits and peaks, Dr. Mohan’s memories are, not surprisingly, loaded with golden moments. Upon being asked to underline some of them, he shares spontaneously, “In my career I have been fortunate to have had several eureka movements – from establishing a simple diabetes risk score to identifying diabetes in the population without drawing a drop of blood to taking up a pan-India diabetes epidemiological study (the ICMR- INDIAB study) to organising a mega diabetes exhibition which was a first for the country given the scale and scope of the event which benefitted thousands of people. All these events are described in my autobiography ‘Making Excellence a Habit’, which is to be published shortly by Penguin India and is already available for preorder on Amazon India.
How would he like to be remembered? What would he want his legacy to be? Dr Mohan articulates with judicious candor, “I would like to be remembered as somebody who established institutions for the treatment of diabetes, research on diabetes, education in diabetes and charitable clinics and rural services for the betterment of lives of people with diabetes. If these institutions can continue long after my time, I would rest contented that my legacy has been continued and that my life has been purposeful”
The Diabetes Revolutionary of India signs off with a note on VOH, a platform that empowers every stakeholder in Healthcare with a powerful pulpit to raise his or her voice above the noise: “My message to readers of Voice of Healthcare would be that you do not have to be an extraordinary by gifted to do great things. Even if you are an ordinary person, but work extraordinarily hard, have self confidence in yourself, faith in God, develop a passion, convert that into a vision and constantly focus on it with full concentration, you will soon see miracles beginning to happen. I would like to share a secret with you. If you write down a list of what you want to achieve in life, soon you will see the magic unfold and all your dreams will start coming true one by one because, nature will conspire to make your dreams come true.”
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