Medical Tourism In India: What Why Where and boon or fall?

We have discussed how important a role tourism plays in the economy of a country. Moreover, tourists from countries abroad, in turn, put your nation on the world map. Making it even more popular globally. India is well on its way on tapping the full potential of tourism-generated benefits. However, one of the key points to understand here is that tourism is not always only related to leisure and discovery.

It, in fact, revolves around and is generated due to more serious reasons. One such essential component is that of Medical tourism. It is extremely important especially in the case of India. Quite a boost to our overall tourism prospects is achieved thanks to the nation’s medical capabilities.

So what exactly is Medical tourism?

It is an emerging sector of tourism based on medical needs and causes. It involves inhabitants of one country travelling to another country to seek medical, dental and surgical treatments and care. In the process, the patients achieve as good as, or even better diagnosis and care in the country they’re travelling to as compared to their home country. People indulge in Medical tourism due to cost-effectiveness or access to better profile of doctors, treatments and facilities etc.

When talking particularly about India, Medical tourism is only growing in heaps and bounds. It moreover shows immense potential, to say the least. This is thanks to the country’s hi-tech medicinal procedures. These are affordable too with respect to the global market rates.

In 2015 (October), the Indian Medical Tourism sector was already worth 3 billion USD. In 2005, the country took out medical Visas for International tourists to promote medical tourism in the country. In 2016 the number of medical visas issued amounted to 170,000+. This was a 45% growth from that of 2015. In fact, medical tourism has become an extremely important part of India’s medical industry. Such that the international marketing director of Fortis Healthcare recorded that 20 % of the business actually comes in from foreigners.

With great achievements forward in the field, India today is referred to as the ‘healthcare hub’. The key is the unique combination of cost-friendly treatments, skilled doctors and advanced techniques. India enjoys the goodwill of successful cases in healthcare. The professionals in the field are known to be world-class and the medicinal institutes of the country a league apart.

Our centuries-old legacies of Yoga, wellness and Ayurveda have also attracted tourists for medicinal purposes. In fact what’s even more interesting is that many who after becoming doctors, were practising in foreign lands, are now returning back to practice in India. This is adding further to our pool of exceptionally skilled and learned specialists.

Another key point to grasp in is that the home country of the medical tourist also has a great role to play. The features of the healthcare system available in the home country determine whether its citizens would indulge in medicinal tourism in the first place. And even if they do indulge, it determines the reasons behind them looking outwards for medical help.

Thus, for instance, if we talk about the USA, one would wonder why the Americans would travel to India when great healthcare already exists in the most proven way in their own country. When considering universally applicable procedures, one would rate the healthcare facilities in the States as probably more advanced or definitely at par with that of India. A lot of what our country is now achieving in the field has been adopted and practised in the United States for some time now. However, the surprising fact is that despite exceptional medical care in place, Americans are seeking healthcare help out of their home country.

In 2016 alone, 11 million people from the United States were recorded to be indulging in medical tourism. They left the States to seek healthcare treatments in other countries around the globe. So what is it that is pushing the people of America to do so?

Well, America has first-class scientific techniques in place, a track record that remains proven but what about affordability? The cost of getting proper medical help in the states is sky-rocketing. This has resulted in many actually being deprived of the same due to inefficient funds.

Not all can afford such expensive payouts of doctors, tests, hospitals and medicines. What’s more? If one figures that they could get similar treatment at a drastically cheaper rate, why would they not make every effort to save on that hard earned cash? What can stop them from indulging in the more cost-effective ways then?

Yes, this is exactly why India has become one of the most popular medical tourism spots amongst patients from America. In fact, getting medically treated in India can save up to 65% to 90% of the cash spent on a similar service in the States.

It is indeed the affordability and cost-efficient feature of India’s medical set-up that attracts the maximum number of medical tourists from developed countries. What’s more? Combine with this the cutting-edge technology, the country is increasingly adopting in healthcare and there we have a clear winner!

Let’s talk about Europe as a country. Again, with great medicinal backgrounds in place, why would Europeans and inhabitants of the continent seek help in a developing country like India? Well, most medical tourists from Europe come to India due to the complex nature of the entire healthcare system in their country.

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In the UK, for instance, you’re assigned particular public healthcare service providers. Often, one needs to wait for appointments and the like. Thus even though universal free healthcare is assured to all in these countries, in reality, many patients are left wary and troubled at times. Private healthcare on the other hand is insanely expensive to afford.

Thus they end up seeking treatments in India (in private hospitals and by skilled professionals) where there is close to zero waiting time. Once the patient is diagnosed, the doctors start the treatment almost immediately. And at rates that are a fraction of what private healthcare in Europe costs.

Now when we consider other developing nations such as those in Western Asia and Africa, the story is a little different. India’s healthcare facilities might still be cheaper than standard rates of these countries. However, patients from these countries often come to India to seek more advanced procedures. Better quality of healthcare services, in general, is what attracts them rather than solely the cost-efficiency.

India is but of course the Mecca of traditional Ayurvedic treatments. We house the world’s best yoga ashrams specifically tailored to treat unique ailments. Some times when people are staunch believers of the same or are simply exhausted from having tried all other options with no success, they find relief in these age-old techniques of our country. People from all over the globe travel to India, seeking unique ayurvedic and yoga-related treatments.

Another endearing factor of the Indian medical-setup is that the staff (doctors and nurses in general) is quite warm and sensitive towards you. As Indians being hospitable comes naturally. Many medical tourists have actually recorded that the healthcare staff in India are more caring towards their patients than in other countries.

What’s more? Those originally from India (NRIs) and having family bases here, prefer to seek treatment in their native land. They thus come back to the country when suffering due to medical reasons which further is an additional boost to our medical tourism.

In fact a lot of the times, it is the whole combined package that the country offers which attracts even more medical tourists. People chose India for medical purposes plus for the great history, culture and beautiful landscapes. Thus along with cost-efficiency and quality healthcare, international patients get to witness stunning royal architecture, scenic paradises and explore exotic customs.

As far as India’s formal recognition is concerned, many of our hospitals are accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH) and Joint Commission International (JCI).

What’s more? India’s government and private hospitals are going out of the way to welcome foreign exchange via this route. Private hospitals organize luxurious packages for medical tourists from other countries. From a chauffeur-driven airport pick-up to catering as per needs and free internet facilities all set up before arrival – you shall feel you’re coming in to a serviced hotel and being treated alongside.

To sum it all, medical tourism is an ongoing phenomenon that is here to stay. Showing an increase year on year, the competition between nations for attracting medical tourists is getting even fiercer. As this develops even more, the number of people seeking medical help outside of the home country is to grow exponentially. For instance, future projections for US patients travelling to other countries for medical assistance says the number shall grow by 25% year on year.

Not only for serious ailments such as cancer and heart-issues but even for plastic surgeries and psychological disorders. Dentistry and more – each country has a niche in particular areas. More so now, all countries are seeking to develop high quality and cost-effective medical help in all these fields.

So which other countries are in the running in this rat race? Other than India, the other top 10 medical tourism destinations include Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Turkey, Costa Rica, Mexico and Brazil.

However, now that we know India is a popular destination for the above, it shall help to note the key regions attracting the maximum of these medical tourists. What about the key medical tourism spots within the Indian borders? Here are the top 5 destinations in this respect:

Top 5 Indian Medical Tourism locations

1. Chennai, Tamil Nadu

There are no surprises with this one. Even as citizens of the country, we’re aware of the exceptional advancement the State of Tamil Nadu and in particular Chennai has achieved in the field of medicine. So many times, nationals of other states, themselves are recorded travelling to and fro from Chennai for medical purposes. This is because of the specialized facilities available in the city, high-quality treatments and some of the country’s best doctors. The key private hospital in the city is Apollo.

Reports show that around 40% of the total medical tourists entering India, head to Chennai for treatment. Chennai in fact houses around 200 international patients every day!

2. Mumbai, Maharashtra

The most developed cities of a Country do usually also house amongst the best medical infrastructures. The same case is with India. Not only the financial capital, but Mumbai is also a healthcare hub of the country attracting patients not only from abroad but other parts of India too (for the treatment of serious ailments etc).

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It is also highly regarded for more specialized medical services such as dietician consultations, weight-loss correcting treatments and cosmetic surgeries. Medicinal face beautification, teeth corrections etc are greatly adorned in the city as famous Bollywood celebs adorn key doctors for the same.

What’s more? The city houses some of the best private hospitals that are par excellence. These include the Kokilaben Hospital, Lilavati Hospital and Breach Candy Hospital amongst others. These result in medical tourism in Mumbai growing drastically in heaps and bounds.

3. Goa

Yes, this might take one as a surprise. Goa is not all about partying and beach-y tropical vibes. The small coastal union territory is based on tourism for its economy, employment and boom. However, a lesser known fact is that it is soon becoming an international hub of medical tourism. Goa has an immensely global crowd such that there is a large influx of international travellers at all times already. Thus, in any case, the development of its medical tourism was but natural and essential.

From this has stemmed, specialized medical facilities and packages for international tourists. The government also, in fact, supports health and wellness-related tourism in the area. The Goa Medical College (run by the government) does not only produce skilled healthcare professionals. It has unique treatments in place tailored to medical tourists. They use the most modern techniques and patient-oriented services to be at par with the international standards of healthcare completely.

What’s more? Goa is already so beautiful on its own, that it automatically helps in easing out an ailed mind and body. Yoga retreats are a great way of healing. Surrounding oneself with the stunning setting of Goa is what the international tourists love while being medically treated. Thus the lovely natural beauty of the coastal town itself is a great boost to its medical tourism potential. Chadsha Tri Health has recently opened up in Goa. The company’s MD and founder, Benjamin Patrick says “Goa offers certain lifestyle to its inhabitants and travellers. That makes this place the best choice for medical tourism destination and for the investors like us to put in their resources”.

4. New Delhi

The capital of India but of course has to have able and efficient medical-setups in place. The famous hospitals include Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Fortis Hospital and of course the AIIMS. From complicated open-heart surgeries to physiotherapy, from Neurology to Gynaecology and Orthopaedics, Delhi has it all covered.

The key factor here is that the city also houses established research work in all the major Medical centres. Mostly all hospitals have research facilities in place. However, it is the AIIMS that is most highly regarded throughout the nation, even for cases of high priority and high-profiles. Expansive facilities are coming up in NCR and Gurgaon regions which shall ensure even further luxury and advancement in the field.

Homoeopathy is also widely accepted and practised in the city as a differentiated way of addressing diseases and issues. This method is especially beneficial for skin-related ailments and curing the very root causes.

5. Ahmedabad

The Gujarati town of Ahmedabad is also quite popular as a medical tourist destination. Especially popular with NRIs, they return back to the country and seek treatments in this city.

The city houses Asia’s largest civil hospital called the ‘Civil Hospital’. Other famous medical centres or hospitals in the city include Sterling Hospital, Apollo Hospital and Shalby Hospital.

So far so good, isn’t it? Doesnt the above all seems like one good story…A win-win for all – the medical tourists and the country in question?

However, the reality is more complex than what appears to the naked eye. If you stop and reflect on the country’s own medical requirements and rural situations, the prospect of medical tourism is not all that glorious.

There is a massive gap in the healthcare system of our nation. In fact, one of the most unequal and fragmented medical setups in the world is what still exists in India today. One may ask how? Well, the reason for this is that India is still predominantly populated with the rural.

The medical services that are available to those affluent and wealthy are far different from that accessible by the poor masses of the country. While the private hospitals are advancing in their techniques and facilities (which only the wealthy can afford), the public centres are still total sites of mess and obsolete.

Most of the Indians actually lack medical insurance resulting in the inability to afford private medical help from established hospitals. In fact, statistics show that a whopping 86% of the rural do not possess medical insurance. George Thomas, orthopaedic surgeon (Chennai) rightly puts it out “If you have a lot of money, you can access a lot of medical care,” “On the other hand, very large numbers of people in India cannot access even basic health care.”

Why is this so? Does the government do nothing to ensure medical facilities for the poor? Well, there are government hospitals in place across districts and villages and even major cities. They have also initiated special programs for the poor to receive free treatments at these public hospitals. However, it is the government-run hospitals in the first place that need help and is anything but adequate. How can they then, solve the medical issues of such a large ailing rural population?

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To begin with, the government-run facilities are overburdened. People have to travel long distances to achieve decent healthcare. Knowledge about ambulances and emergency services are still not widespread amongst villagers of the nation.

Many cases in the past have been recorded where patients have unnecessarily suffered or even died due to inefficient practices in public hospitals. For instance, a UP government hospital came in the limelight when 63 patients passed away due to a lack of sufficient oxygen in the centre!

Due to underpaid jobs in public hospitals, trained professionals shift to the private sector. This leaves only the underqualified for government hospitals.

Moreover, even when a patient does make it to the most reputed government hospital of the nation (AIIMS Delhi), one is ensured of efficient practices and diagnosis, however, the wait required may be too long to withstand the disease. A huge queue of patients makes it immensely difficult to get treated at the AIIMS in time. In fact, statistics show that victims of trauma in India are more than twice as likely to pass away compared to similar cases in affluent states.

Thus but of course, the citizens look to indulge in private health care facilities as opposed to public. Especially for those located in major Indian cities and who can afford private hospitals, the public centres are a complete no-no, such that they cannot even stand to enter the premises. Even lesser than 30% of the total people’s illnesses were recorded in 2016 to be treated by the public centres. However, what about the poor, whose annual average earnings, are lesser than one-time treatment fees of a private hospital in India? How should they then be treated?

In such a situation of complete mess and misery, how is welcoming international medical tourists with open arms acting out for the citizens of India at large? How is it in turn affecting the health of the Indians?

After all, promoting medical tourism means foreigners to the land using up our already limited resources. Which might we add, are very much in requirement by the masses of the nation each day? Should we be apprehensive? Glenn Cohen, famous for his expert knowledge on medical tourism (from the Harvard Law School) states that “there’s some reason to be concerned.”

However, we would like to highlight that medical tourism in no way is all detrimental. Yes, it sure is filling up the seats of private hospitals adding to their wealth. It, therefore, does pose the risk of shifting resources to private sectors at the expense of the public hospitals serving the poor. However, despite doing so, it also presents promising opportunities.

Those who believe in the notion of medical tourism, propose that its benefits include boosting the overall health-care system of the country. Yes, thanks to international medical tourists, there have been considerable improvements in the facilities we provide.

More importantly, considerable revenues are being generated which in turn can enhance national medical care. In other words, medical tourism can help solve the problems listed above with respect to inadequate funding for public centres.

The private hospitals are actually required to undertake a certain percentage of free/discounted health-care for the poor as per government policies. The government supports the expansion plans and international intakes of private sector hospitals based on them adhering to these legalities. However, this too is not addressing the problem at hand. Private hospitals (including major names) have been fined time and again for going against these terms.

Nevertheless, the supporters of medical tourism argue that it results in reversing brain drain i.e. bringing back home the Indian professionals that are practising as doctors in other countries.

Preetha Reddy (from the Apollo Hospital group) believes that medical tourism revolves around “contributing to the objective of health for all.” The CEO of Patients Beyond Borders is of the opinion that it is pushing hospitals to seek international accreditation and is thus a great step forward.

However, there are others that remain less accepting and more sceptical about the whole thing. The general consensus even amongst those sceptical is, however, that it all boils down to the proper re-distribution of the wealth generated by the medical tourism sector.

If the locals are to benefit from this at all, it’s only possible via well-enforced redistribution of the foreign exchange earned.

Deepanshu Mohan a researcher in the field (Jindal School of International Affairs) also believes that “The distribution of the revenue that has accumulated in the private sector has to be worked out.”

Thus the key here is that medical tourism is not a bad thing. In fact, it is not on us to contend that anymore. Since it is not only restricted to Indian borders.

The rat race for medical tourists is a global phenomenon today. In order to sustain in the battle, what India is doing to promote medical tourism should, in fact, bring us great results.

However, for this, the key is to also re-distribute these additional funds specifically for the betterment of public-care hospitals in the country. Only then, can we make real progress in the healthcare space for the country at large.

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