On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows
This year, I’ve been working with BEMPU Health, a for-profit social enterprise that develops and commercializes medical technologies for newborns in low-resource areas in India. We are a tech startup.
Most people think of tech and startups as very male-dominated spaces. My experience at BEMPU has been unique, however, in that despite having more men than women on our team, I’ve found that my female colleagues have been the most instrumental in shaping the direction and success of BEMPU. I want to shine a light on some of my colleagues here; they are inspiring, supportive, and incredibly good at what they do.
Dr. Archana Bilagi is the Chief of the Division of Neonatology in the Department of Pediatrics at St. Philomena’s Hospital in Bangalore. She served as the Secretary for the National Neonatology Forum – Karnataka Chapter, from 2014-2015, and she is American Board Certified in Pediatrics and Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. She is a Clinical Advisor for BEMPU Health, and was one of the first clinicians to work with our founder, Ratul, on refining and testing our device. She has been an invaluable resource for our team – constantly providing insights from her work with her patients, allowing us to run clinical studies in her neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to improve our devices, and being a sounding board as we try to develop new solutions.
Even more, Dr. Archana has been an incredible role model and mentor for me. Every Thursday, I have the opportunity to attend her out-patient department (OPD) hours, when her discharged patients come back for check-ups. I love watching her interact with her patients – I learn so much from hearing her calm patients’ qualms, and advise them when a baby may not be gaining as much weight as it should be. During the OPD hours, she usually has a post-graduate resident with her, so I also get to see her as a teacher; she pushes her students and challenges them so they can be the best doctors they can be. I admire her balance of warmth and seriousness about what she does – she is serious with her trainees but completely warm and compassionate with her patients. While in the OPD, people often mistake me for her daughter, which I take it as a compliment. Dr. Archana is an incredible reminder that women can do it all – she has three daughters herself, is an incredible physician, wants to make more impact and does so through working with BEMPU and the government, and she knows how to have fun – she’s joined the BEMPU team on many team social events and happy hours! My Thursdays with Dr. Archana in the OPD were honestly my favorite and richest days at BEMPU.
After one of our Thursday sessions, I got the chance to interview Dr. Archana. I’m excited to share her story:
Q: Tell me a bit about yourself.
A: I’m a pediatrician who is passionate about newborn healthcare. I’ve been working in this field for more than 15 years. I hope to do more on an even larger scale through working with various organizations and through the government. And you already know the other stuff, like I have three daughters and I have a zest for life!
Q: What drew you to medicine, and specifically, to neonatology?
A: It was honestly my dad! I really had no inclination towards medicine, but my parents encouraged me to join medicine. Then, when I went to the U.S., I got into pediatrics. During pediatrics, I had a rotation in the NICU. I didn’t know what to expect, but when I walked into the NICU, I fell in love with neonatology – there was no looking back from there. While I had been training in India, I hadn’t seen any neonates. But, when I saw all these tiny babies, the little preemies, and incubators and machines all hooked up, I just fell in love. I knew that very day that is what I wanted do.
Q: Tell me about an average day for you at your hospital, St. Philomena’s.
A: An average day consists of doing rounds, making medical decisions about new and existing admissions in the NICU, teaching [post-grad] students and nurses during rounds and after rounds, seminars in the afternoons, and the rest of the day rounds on the NICU either in person or on the phone. There is also the occasional rushing back to the NICU if there’s an emergency with a critical baby.
Q: How did you begin working with BEMPU?
A: Ratul used to come sit outside my OPD – just like you do – and I saw him and said hi. He introduced himself and I said let’s talk, but only over tea or coffee in the canteen. I usually only give 2-3 mins to a pharmaceutical rep or a product; but, I was interested in his device and I also could see his passion and his doubts, and I wanted to help. I got really interested in this product that was continuously monitoring temperature – I know hypothermia is a real problem in these small babies, and we don’t have an efficient way to monitor in the postnatal wards and in the home. I thought it had the potential to save lives, so from that day I’ve been involved. (Note: I conducted Dr. Archana’s interview over coffee in that same canteen; we often sit for a few minutes and have a cup after Thursday’s OPD hours to chat and catch up)
Q: What do you think is the biggest threat to improving infant mortality rates and newborn health in India?
A: That’s a complicated question. There are so many. One is lack of time from the doctor’s side – or the nurses – to educate and support the mothers with regard to breastfeeding. Second is lack of education and common sense in mothers regarding danger signs in the newborn – identifying when her newborn is sick. The biggest one, though, is that most babies are born in the government hospitals, and there is a huge list of problems there – lack of infrastructure, deficient number of health personnel, lack of medicines and resources – so the mortality rates are high. Unless we improve government services, the mortality rates won’t improve, regardless of how much education we provide. There’s no sense of urgency from the Department of Family and Welfare Services to improve, and a hesitation to involve other organizations in improving the situation. That is the biggest setback to improving the situation.
Q: What do you think is the place for technology in the newborn health space?
A: Once a baby is out of the NICU, technology will play a major role in small [low birth weight] babies because when they get sick, their illnesses proceed really fast. There’s a natural delay in the mother’s recognition of the illness, as well as a delay in getting them to the hospital. There’s still room for more innovation here – helping with home care and care in the government settings. Another eye on the baby will always be helpful.
Q: Do you have any advice for women who want to be in the medical technology space, or for doctors that may want to get involved with tech?
A: There’s a lot of scope for medical technology now, and this is a field where you can see your dreams coming true. You can reach large populations and improve health indices through medical technology, and it is not just a man’s world. It doesn’t have a gender!
About the Author
Janan Dave earned a bachelor’s degree in Arts, Health and Societies from the University of Pennsylvania. Despite visiting India with her family while growing up in Princeton, NJ, Janan has always dreamt of spending an extended period of time working in India. Before joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Janan worked with public health organizations in Philadelphia, and then served as the Director of Community Health at the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute. Pursuing her passion for maternal and child health, she served as an AIF Clinton Fellow with BEMPU Health in Bangalore, Karnataka.
AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.