Kasturi Bhattacharjee, MD, MS, DNB, FRCS | Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia
As a recent graduate of the Harvard Medical School Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia program, Kasturi Bhattacharjee, MD, MS, DNB, FRCS, was in a perfect place to complete the program in 2021. She'd obtained the position of Director (Clinics and Academics) at Sri Sankaradeva Nethralaya, a premier eye hospital in Guwahati in 2019, and "realized I need to be the best version of a leader I could be," she remembers. With a specialty in ophthalmology, "all these years I've been working as a clinician, but I needed to see things from a different perspective."
The program is tailored to students like her, providing access for emerging clinicians in Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific region to experts in areas like safety, quality, organizational management and leadership. Since administration skills like finance and HR optimization aren't always taught in medical school, this certificate program helps bridge that gap.
But it's been more useful than just the skillset for Bhattacharjee. During her time in the program, she took on new roles, won awards and got funding for her capstone project. Though her career has primarily flourished in her native country, participating in the HMS program pushed her to look at issues her institution faces from a global perspective, and it has also "educated me on issues my colleagues are facing around the world."
"I believe the future of medicine is preventive," she says. "Illnesses and the way we deal with them are global phenomena—and the challenges are universal."
Implementing Organizational Changes from Within
By the time she went looking for the leadership program, Bhattacharjee was already a decorated clinician. In total, she's won 42 national and international awards and is one of the few ophthalmologists in the world to receive the Developing Country Eye Researcher Travel Fellowship Award from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.
She furthered her education by visiting Johns Hopkins, Jules Stein Eye Institute, UCLA and Gimbel Eye Center, Calgary and also holds a fellowship with the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh in Scotland; she was senior and chief instructor on eyelid surgery in 2016 and 2018 at the American Academy of Ophthalmology and in the World Ophthalmology Congress in Spain in 2018. She was awarded the second Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (FRCS) in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2019. Additionally, she is a Global Examiner of FRCS (Ophthalmology) Glasgow and is the former vice president of subspeciality for the Asia Pacific Society
Now, she's also the first female director of Sri Sankaradeva Nethralaya and one of the few female directors at the centers for excellence across India. Yet, even with all her myriad experience, "I wasn't sure if I'd be a leader people look up to," she says. "This program has given me confidence and changed my outlook. I've realized how important it is to work with the community."
The hybrid learning program, with the ability to access materials anytime regardless of time zone, was helpful for Bhattacharjee to pursue her professional development without leaving her job. She watched coursework at lunchtime and between work hours and got particular value from the rigor in a remote setting—from the ability to engage with her professors to the breakout sessions with her international cohort of students.
Among the most important takeaways for her were the insights on finance and organizational structure, which she's already started to implement. She's begun developing her HR team and focusing on finding the right person for the right job, while simultaneously trying to "organize the organization" based on team members' strengths. Change may be slow, but she's determined. "I've always believed that there's a very thin line between obstacle and opportunity," she says.
Providing Better Eye Care in Rural India
The Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia program's capstone project enables participants to complete an NIH-level grant and have it reviewed by HMS faculty. Bhattacharjee focused on avoidable blindness in rural India, where patients may not have access to doctors, facilities or information. She's trying to reach the "last man in the last mile," extending care all the way to those in impoverished areas. "Preventable blindness is extremely high, and there's so much lack of awareness, so much fear and lack of communication," she explains.
So she's developing Digital Eye Services, an outreach program that combines information, education and communication. There's a digital platform that provides easy-to-access information about conditions, as well as direct interaction with medical professionals. There will also be a mobile van with top-notch equipment so that clinicians can travel and provide care, particularly for the vulnerable, in regions that don't have access to a nearby health care facility. All of this could provide important data about the people living in those regions.
This is just the beginning, though. "The most important thing is that we want to have local buy-in from the community beneficiaries," she says. "We can unlock innumerable opportunities for employment. If this initiative is successful, we could expand it all over India."
And, while she was enrolled in the HMS program, she obtained funding for Digital Eye Services—$16,000 from Mission for Vision and $100,000 from Cognizant Foundation. The program, she says, taught her how to package and sell an idea like hers to people who might be interested in helping the project financially.
Bhattacharjee has an even more expanded vision beyond even these lofty goals. She's working to implement a performance-based incentive system within her program and improve cohesion among her team. She also wants to expand with a genetic lab that works on preventative blindness and has already started work on this project. Subsequently, she wants to expand with secondary-level hospitals in rural areas to continue "reaching the last man" with expert eye care in the most remote locations. She has big plans for her program to be recognized around the world and "engage in international collaboration—the more we accept change, the more we evolve," she says.
During her time in the program, she also became a member of the editorial board of EYENET, the American Academy of Ophthalmology magazine. She also became chairwoman of the subcommittee of the Collegium of All India Ophthalmological Society, has obtained a FAICO Fellowship and was honored by All India Ophthalmological Society with the "Star of India-International Heroes Award" in 2020. The Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia program energized her to move forward proactively in her work.
"It has helped me be more confident in how I am presenting my community, my organization and my nation," she says.
Learn more about Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia.
Written by Katherine J. Igoe