Massive ambulance service reduces neonatal and infant mortality in India

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GVK EMRI paramedics help a woman into one of the 10,000 ambulances the nonprofit has operating around India today. Siddhartha Jain

An Indian businessman approached Stanford Medicine in 2005 with an outlandish proposition: Help us build an ambulance system across the sprawling South Asia nation, which is home to 10 percent of the world’s traffic deaths.

S.V. Mahadevan, MD, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Stanford Medicine, was skeptical the nonprofit GVK EMRI (Emergency Management and Research Institute) could truly pull it off.

They only had 14 ambulances in the world’s second most populous nation.

Today the system has expanded to a fleet of nearly 10,000 ambulances, manned by some 20,000 medical professionals who ply the roads in cities and rural villages to provide access to emergency care to 750 million people — three-quarters of India’s population — according to a story in Stanford Medicine magazine last year.

“It’s hard to fathom what this system has done in 10 years,” said Mahadevan, founder of Stanford Emergency Medicine International, which has provided medical expertise to GVK EMRI over the last decade, helping to train the EMTs who now belong to the largest ambulance service in the developing world.

“It could be regarded as one of the most important advances in global medicine in the world today," he said.

Yet up until now there has been no analytical research on the impact of the ambulance service. Though EMRI says its 911-like service has saved more than 1.4 million lives in its first decade, there has been no published research to back up that claim.

Now, research by Stanford Health Policy scholars published in the October edition of the health policy journal, Health Affairs, indicates EMRI’s system has had a significant impact on saving the lives of newborns and infants, one of the most challenging health dilemmas plaguing India today.

Focusing on the first two states served by GVK EMRI — with a combined population of 145 million — their results show that the organization’s services have reduced infant and neonatal mortality rates by at least 2 percent in high-mortality areas of the western state of Gujarat. There were similar effects statewide in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh.

"I've worked on various issues related to women and children's health in Asia for many years, and one of the most frustratingly stubborn problems is preventable infant and maternal deaths,” said Kimberly Singer Babiarz, a research scholar at Stanford Health Policy and lead author of the paper.

“With our modern medical knowledge, childbirth should not be so risky and newborns should not be dying at such high rates,” said Babiarz.

India has 28 maternal neonatal or infant deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the World Bank, making it one of the highest in the world. The global average is 19.2 deaths per 1,000 births; the rate drops to 4 in North America.

“These issues are particularly compelling to me as a mother,” Babiarz said. “It's wonderful to find a model that has found some success in connecting mothers and their infants with high-quality and timely emergency care when it is most needed.”

The authors used electronic service records from GVK EMRI, matched to population-representative surveys from the International Institute for Population Sciences, and their own survey that they conducted in Gujarat in 2010 through the Collaboration for Health System Improvement and Impact Evaluation in India. The combined surveys include information on over 16,000 live births.

The public-private nonprofit provides its services free of charge and most of its beneficiaries are the poorest of the poor. Each state contributes to the ambulance system, as does the federal government. It also depends on private philanthropy among some of India’s wealthiest industrialists.

The School of Medicine in 2007 signed a formal agreement to develop an educational curriculum and train the initial group of 180 skilled paramedics and instructors. Over the years, the Stanford instructors have learned to tailor the curriculum to local needs.

About one-third of the toll-free calls to 108 — an auspicious number in India — are from women in labor. Deliveries have traditionally been done at home, particularly in rural villages, where women often die of complications. So the Stanford team has since designed a special obstetrics curriculum and helped create the country’s first protocols for obstetric care.



Grant Miller, an associate professor of medicine, core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy and senior author of the study, has worked on many health policy projects in India over the years. The results aren’t always hopeful.

“I’ve conducted a number of evaluations of large-scale health programs in India, and there are disappointingly few programs and policies that we’ve found to be effective,” said Miller, who is also director of the Stanford Center for International Development and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “So it’s exciting to find one that may have worked quite well.”

Miller and his fellow authors note, however, that further research on emergency medical services in other Indian states and by other providers is still needed.

“We need to do a lot more work — but these results suggest that something important has happened,” he said. “With the release of more population-representative data from more states, we’re eager to expand our analysis to the rest of the country.”

Stanford Medicine’s Center for Innovation in Global Health also supported the authors’ research in India.

Ruthann Richter, director of media relations for the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs, contributed to this story.