(October 27, 2023) Some 14 years ago, a prominent personality from the film industry approached Dr GV Rao seeking medical help for his condition. A diagnosis revealed colon cancer. However, the patient did not want his family to know, as there was a wedding scheduled in the family. The hitch – a family member needed to sign the consent forms for the surgical procedure. The patient reposed his full faith in Dr Rao, who signed the forms. Today, the patient is healthy and leading a normal life.
For Dr GV Rao, regarded as the “living legend” in the world of Gastroenterology, there have been umpteen situations when he went out of his way to help his patients. “After all these years, I still get calls at midnight for some emergency. But my experiences have taught me to stay composed even in the most demanding situations,” smiles Dr GV Rao, Director and Chief of Surgical gastroenterology, GI Oncology and minimal invasive surgery at the Asian Institute of Gastroenterology (AIG).
A leader in his field, basic science research is a crucial area of interest for Dr Rao, who is keen on developing indigenous research pathways, techniques and technologies that can help clinicians treat patients in more cost-effective yet efficacious way. “I am following the advent of newer technologies in the form of artificial intelligence and machine learning. It is fascinating and opens up opportunities for us to work on from the clinical standpoint,” Dr Rao tells Global Indian.
He sees immense potential in developing a sub-specialty which can be a hybrid of AI and GI Surgery where surgeons will get trained on AI models which in turn will further develop essential surgical practices with the data points coming from the surgeons’ usage.
The soft spoken doctor’s journey is truly fascinating. “But for a Court decision, I would have been a veterinary doctor,” chuckles Dr Rao. Born into a middle-class Hyderabad family with one sister and three brothers, he tried to get admission in a medical school at the age of 16 but was too young to qualify. “I went to court and got the clearance. In the meantime, I enrolled in a veterinary college for a month as I did not want to waste an year. If the court had ruled differently, I would have been a vet,” informs Dr Rao.
His early schooling was in the Vivekananda School but his father, G Murahari, who was a civil engineer working in the Electricity Board, wanted to give his children the best education, despite the financial constraints. Subsequently, he got admitted into the Hyderabad Public School, Ramanathpur, which he says, was both a cultural and academic shock to him.
“My father insisted on English literature as the first option, which was tougher than math or science,” he says. As a result, he scored poorly in the first year. “But then, that’s the beauty of an institution like HPS which instilled language skills, be it oratory or written. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd as a non-detail book !,” recalls Dr Rao, who, within one year was able to grasp enough English in order to top the class. At school, he played tennis and hockey but it was swimming that has been a constant in his life since the schooling days.
It was primarily his father’s ambition and his influence that kept Dr GV Rao motivated to become a doctor. After his MBBS from Osmania Medical college, Hyderabad, he was keen on getting into general surgery. “I went on to do my Masters from Bangalore and was lucky to get trained under Prof. Vittal who shaped me as a skilled surgeon,” informs the doctor.
Back then, Surgical Gastroenterology as a specialty had just started in Chennai and Dr Rao began to work under Prof. Natesan Rangabashyam, the doyen who envisioned Surgical Gastroenterology as a speciality and started MCh Surgical Gastroenterology.
When he returned to Hyderabad, Dr Rao was offered a government posting in his father’s hometown. But it was more of a primary health center with not much work for a surgeon. “My father was very happy about my job and posting, but I resigned within three days of my joining, without his knowledge. He did not talk to me for nearly 6 months,” says Dr Rao. Those were the days when a government job meant career security.
Dr Rao went on to specialise in Laparascopy and GI surgery at many prestigious hospitals overseas including St Marks and Kings College, London. “I was trained under Prof. Sydney Chung for the basic laparoscopy. Once, I went for a workshop in Hong Kong where Prof Chung showcased laparoscopic cholecystectomy in the morning and by evening, that very patient walked into the auditorium. That entire thing was an awe-inspiring moment,” recalls Dr Rao, who then stayed back to learn laparoscopy with Prof Chung.
Dr Rao’s inclination towards minimally invasive approach in surgery got him interested in following Dr. D Nageshwar Reddy (chairman of AIG) and his work in endoscopy. The rest is history. “We started a morning and evening practice at Medinova hospital and slowly moved towards creating our own space.”
Asian Institute of Gastroenterology
Another interesting case that actually helped both Dr Reddy and Dr GV Rao transform their services was when a popular Chief Minister’s spouse approached them.
The patient underwent laparoscopic cholecystectomy and subsequently developed septic shock because of an impacted CBD stone. An urgent ERCP was to be done. “We were contacted and airlifted to attend the patient at midnight. We managed to save the patient and as a result the CM offered us a place in his state to start a full-scale practice,” says Dr Rao.
However, they did not want to move out of Hyderabad. “The CM then ensured that we get a place in Hyderabad to start our independent institution. That’s how Asian Institute of Gastroenterology got its first proper building in the year 2004.”
The early years
Describing the first two years (2003-04) as the most dramatic in his career, Dr GV Rao beams with pride when he says that they performed the first Endoscopic appendectomy in the world, this evolved into the Natural Orifice Transluminal Endoscopic Surgery or Scarless Surgery.
Dr Rao was asked to present this data in a major gastroenterology meeting in USA after being primed about a possible negative response from the attendees as had happened when the first ever laparoscopic cholecystectomy was showcased earlier in similar meetings. “The presentation went flawless, but the standing ovation of 4000 plus audience is unbelievable to this day.”
Back then, the first 50 laparoscopic cholecystectomy were done at midnight because of the non-availability of endoscopy camera. “It was a kind of innovation at that time, where we used to leverage an endoscopic camera with adapter to fix on the laparoscopic instrument to do the surgeries. Surgeons these days won’t even be able to imagine something of that sort,” he explains.
Challenges for medical fraternity
As a medical professional, Dr Rao feels the internet-acquired knowledge by patients is a huge challenge. “Patients increasingly rely on information from the internet, which can be both a boon and a challenge. While it can empower patients to make informed decisions, it also leads to misinformation and self-diagnosis, potentially complicating the doctor-patient relationship,” he points out.
Another challenge is the “empathy deficiency” in next-generation doctors. “With the growing emphasis on technology and specialization in medical education, there is a concern that future doctors may lack the interpersonal skills and empathy required for patient-centered care. Balancing technological advancements with compassionate patient interactions is crucial.”
As algorithms and machine learning become integral to healthcare, concerns arise about the opacity and bias of these systems, he says. “The medical community must grapple with issues of accountability, data privacy, and ensuring that AI complements, rather than replaces, clinical expertise,” he feels.
Keeping the doctor away
“I prioritize my personal health by maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Regular exercise, including both cardiovascular workouts and strength training, helps me stay fit and promotes overall well-being,” says Dr Rao, who adheres to a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats while practicing portion control to prevent overeating.
Staying well-hydrated with an adequate water intake is essential for digestion and overall health, he advises. “While I do enjoy occasional indulgent foods and treats, I do so in moderation, not making them a regular part of my diet,” he says. Regular check-ups and screenings are scheduled to monitor his health and detect potential issues early.
At AIG, they have a Bicycling club where they get together on Sundays, enjoy a nice ride, and have a comforting breakfast together. “You don’t realize at first but activities like these do help take out the stress and also builds a great camaraderie among teams.”
The doctor loves watching science fiction movies and some of them do get featured in his clinical presentations too. “From Matrix, Terminator to Avatar, I try and catch up with all the latest sci-fi movies and they do keep me hooked,” says Dr Rao, who by his own admission, has a soft corner for Hyderabadi Biryani but does not over indulge.
Dr Rao says it would be worth it if all the experience and practical knowledge that he acquired, can be used to influence medical teaching, practice, and community work. “Consulting government agencies with a science-based approach would be something that I would be delighted to contribute to,” he says.
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