x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Doctor whose patients are a gift

Dr Azad Moopen has achieved financial success in Dubai with his network of clinics, hospitals and pharmacies. But his operations are run on the belief that health care is not something you can undertake only as a business.

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A young Azad Moopen growing up in rural Kerala learned early on about the haves and have nots. Depending on the day, his childhood home was a tribunal, an arbitration centre or a counselling office, or all three at once, when it hosted village residents who sought out his father for help in clearing up disputes.

The elder Mr Moopen was a zamindar, or landowner, and held a position of respect in the family's village. A decade before his son was born, he had been a "freedom fighter" supporting efforts in Kerala to force the UK to leave India. With such a family legacy, it is not surprising that the younger Moopen would learn to hold social work in high regard. "Everybody preaches about charity but we always saw him practising that," says Ziham Moopen, Azad's daughter who has worked in a variety of roles in her father's company.

It was a charitable effort to raise money from Indian expatriates in the UAE that brought Dr Moopen to Dubai in 1987. He was 34, married with young daughters and teaching internal medicine at Calicut Medical College in Kozhikode, the city also known as Calicut. Dr Moopen had earned his degree in general medicine five years earlier at that campus and had eagerly joined the student union, becoming a student advocate classmates would recall nearly three decades later.

He had no intention to leave that life. "I thought I would stay in academia," he says. But on that trip to Dubai, Dr Moopen saw what he described as a "primitive" healthcare system unable to care for labourers from the subcontinent who had come to the country for work. The UAE in the late 1980s bore very little resemblance to the nation of today, with branded hospitals in "healthcare cities". In 1987, there were only 50 Indian physicians working in the entire country, he says, compared with the 1,000 doctors from Kerala alone working here today.

"So I saw an opportunity to help myself as well as help people," says Dr Moopen, who had intended to stay for only a couple of years. "I think it's God that pushes you in a particular direction and then you either take it up or you don't. When opportunity knocks at your door, you can either open up the door or you can complain about noise pollution." So that year, he moved his wife and daughters - the youngest of whom was aged two - to the UAE.

Those first months in Dubai went by in a rush. Where Dr Moopen once engaged students in the classroom on internal medicine, he now treated as many as 150 patients a day in two five-hour shifts with a two-hour break in between. He was no longer just an internist but also a gynaecologist, a general surgeon and a paediatrician. "The first few years it was sometimes scary to look at a child when you haven't treated one in five years," he says.

Word of mouth among those from the subcontinent that an Indian doctor was practising in Dubai kept the patients coming. "Instead of coming with presents like a bouquet to show their respect and regard for you, they would come to you with patients as presents," Dr Moopen recalls. "They brought patients to give as their present." He opened the Al Rafa Poly Clinic in Bur Dubai, the first facility in what would become a network of more than 90 clinics, pharmacies and hospitals with an annual turnover of US$150 million (Dh550.9m) a year.

In Kerala, Dr Moopen has opened the Malabar Institute of Medical Sciences (MIMS), a 600-bed hospital. He attributes his success to a steadfast belief that philanthropy and medicine are two sides of the same coin. "Health care, if you approach it as a business, first of all you are not going to be feeling personally accomplished," Dr Moopen says. "Second, I don't think you can be a success. Profit has to be the by-product. It shouldn't be the aim."

While most businesses rightly run on a strict regimen of profit and loss, healthcare companies have a greater responsibility, one that can't always be reconciled in a corporate ledger. "Even from the paying capacity point of view, one patient may require a discount," Dr Moopen says. "One may require free treatment." In addition to health care, Dr Moopen has taken an interest in education and has established three international schools in Saudi Arabia. He has plans to start a chain of schools in Kerala, as well.

Dr Moopen says 5 per cent - twice the zakat traditionally required of Muslims - of his profit is given to charity. In the UAE, Moopen physicians offer free treatment at labour camps, helping workers with symptoms of heart disease, diabetes or mental health problems. In India, MIMS offers free heart valve replacement surgery or cochlear implants, electronic devices to assist hearing, for children. "There was this entire village with no medical facilities," Ms Moopen says of Vazhayoor, with a population of 2,000, in Kerala. "He just sort of adopted it."

Like his father, Dr Moopen stressed to his own children that the fortunate must help those who are not. "When we were younger, he would tell us to send in a small amount - I think it was around Dh100 - to helping educate children in Africa," Ms Moopen says, recalling the update letters she and her sisters would receive in the mail about the children they were helping. "He would help us get a sense of things. Over here in Dubai you don't really see poverty. It's quite easy to completely lose track of what's happening in the rest of the world."

Dr Moopen is making plans to make the transition from running his holding company DM Healthcare. The brand has been rechristened Aster, the Greek word for star. He has already hand-picked leadership team of longtime executives and is planning to take the company public in three years. By 2015, he plans to relinquish the reins of the company he founded, a few years before its 30th anniversary. "I won success at home; I have a nice loving family," Dr Moopen says in his small office adorned with photographs of himself with members of the UAE Royal Family and foreign dignitaries. "I have been successful in my profession. God has been kind to me.

In the two decades he has made his home and built a career in Dubai, Dr Moopen has travelled from labour camps to royal palaces, always with the same message: Health care for all. "Now, I would like to allocate more time for helping people and reduce helping myself," he adds. For Dr Moopen, retirement means returning his focus to India, more than 20 years after he had originally intended. He sees his homeland as a new frontier, one where companies like his can find new markets. "In the 21st century, India and China will dominate the world. We are focused on India as the main area for growth in the next 15 or 20 years."

For the work he has already done to bring health care to the poorest of Indians, Dr Moopen was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, the highest honour for Indians living abroad, in January. Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the president of India, illustrated the importance of the Indian diaspora to its homeland by invoking the example of Mahatma Gandhi who was, she said, "the greatest NRI [non-resident Indian] who came back and changed the whole country".

Dr Moopen says NRIs "have to come back and not only send back money. They should personally get involved and come back and do something in the development of the country." ashah@thenational.ae