‘Incredible India’ attracts people from all parts of the globe in appreciation for her culture, cuisine and hospitality. In the recent times, there has been an added feature to this list, medicine. While yoga and ayurveda are streams that the West has embraced, Indian healthcare is now sought after for a multitude of reasons. Medical tourism, or travel across international borders to avail healthcare, is fast emerging as an economy booster for India. The numbers tell their own story and the prediction for 2012 is at a figure of over 1.1 million tourists!
“It is a purely India centric event which is the first of its kind and has additionally been approved under the MDA scheme.”
As various hospitals team up with tourism operators and promoters to advertise their world-renowned facilities and operations, there has been a surge in public interest about the concept of medical tourism. Its popularity has reached such heights that books have been published to ease the process by listing hospitals, procedures and budgeting during such a trip. Take for example, Patients beyond Borders by Josef Woodman, which provides an exhaustive content base, which is the perfect companion for any foreigner availing medical services outside of the United States of America.
For a country like the U.S., where 47 million people are uninsured, medical tourism provides relief from stringent U.S. healthcare laws. The idea gained popularity when people realised they could avail cheaper treatments abroad without compromising on the quality and standards or efficacy of treatment. JCI (Joint Commission International) accredits hospitals worldwide to commission a standardised network that assists patients in choosing the right facility. An Indian equivalent of that exists in the form of NABH (National Accreditation Board of Hospitals & Healthcare). The process has been simplified to such an extent that, all that the patient has to do is choose a medical tourism company that presents their options while guiding them through every step of their treatment. Starting with arranging visas, hospitals and even connecting them with their doctors, post procedure therapy and a safe flight back home, these companies have thought out all the parameters.
Leading Indian hospitals such as Apollo Hospitals and Fortis Medical are playing host to such clientele. With a combination of comfort, the latest equipment and the strength of over 75 lakh doctors, they perform surgeries and offer treatments with a high rate of recovery.
Encouragement from the government
The Indian government issues a medical visa called ‘M Visa’ for patients and an ‘Mx Visa’ for the patients’ family which gives them the option of extending their stay to a period of 1 year or the treatment time, whichever is sooner. The Indian Ministry of Tourism is also taking initiatives to develop the medical tourism industry. An extension of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign, which incorporates a medical tourism element, is expected to go on air in the near future. The MDA (Market Development Assistance) scheme under which hospitals accredited by JCI & NABH can participate in overseas medical tourism conferences and events can gain up to a 75 per cent reimbursement by the government. This scheme has also been extended to medical tourism facilitators or the middlemen who form the connect between patients and hospitals/host countries.
Organisations like Indian Medical Travel Association (IMT), a non-profit organization that brings together healthcare providers in India, are constantly urging the government to further the cause of medical tourism in India. Road shows to showcase India’s offering to the medical world have been conducted with great vigor. IMT recently went to the Middle East to promote the Indian medical tourism industry and have another big event planned in Canada between November 20th and 22nd, where 40 Indian hospitals and wellness players are expected to participate. Says Pradeep Thukral, Executive Director, IMT, “It is a purely India centric event which is the first of its kind and has additionally been approved under the MDA scheme.”
What about the locals?
At the other end of the spectrum, India’s public health system is relatively poor while the down trodden suffer from the lack of proper medical facilities. Some doubts have been raised about the need to rectify the healthcare for locals before welcoming the world to the services India has to offer. “This fear of preferential treatment is baseless. The patients who come to avail services in India are for tertiary care and are concentrated in the private hospitals,” explains Thukral.
Numerous hospitals catering to this segment of the medical industry are cropping up while existing hospitals are increasing their capacity to include 1,000 beds. “With the foreign clientele coming in, the cost of operations for locals actually comes down”, feels Thukral. While the top end suites and deluxe rooms in hospitals contribute to 30-40 per cent of the revenue, it is normally not utilised by Indians. Medical tourists occupy this facility and improve the viability for better services at a competitive cost for Indians. “With the same doctors and surgeons operating, similar technology and operation rooms used, the locals pay lesser for the same service”, explains Thukral. He adds, “The management of public health care is a different debate in itself. The government has to invest and improve the state of health care and rope in private partnerships to achieve this goal.”
Guarding against competition
While India is a major contender amongst medical tourism destinations, it faces stern competition from the likes of Thailand and Singapore. “We have excellent doctors, the latest technology and a high level of hospitality and comfort but the one thing India lacks is marketing and customer care,” says Thukral. Most hospitals lack a marketing department, while Singapore and Thailand offer toll free help lines and 24*7 call centers which go to the extent of connecting the patient and the doctor if need be. Another major concern is the tedious visa process. While the government has made arrangements for the special ‘M’ visa, a lot of kinks have to be tightened. Americans do not require a visa to visit countries like Thailand, while the immigration process alone in India can cause the potential client to choose a different medical destination.
Despite these challenges, the prospects for the Indian medical tourism industry remain bright. The revenue forecast for the industry for 2012 is Rs 10,000 crore, an indication that India is firmly placed on the world map for medical tourism.