India has emerged as a preferred destination for medical tourism but there is no room for complacency as others are shaping up too By Supriya Batra
“Atithi Devo Bhava (Guest is God)” has been one of the central tenets of Indian culture since time immemorial.
As medical treatment costs in the developed world balloon out of proportion, India is emerging as the largest health travel destination for people across the globe. According to Prathap C. Reddy, founder and chairman of Apollo Hospitals, “Healthcare in India has evolved considerably over the last decade. The Indian healthcare industry is growing rapidly and is expected to become a $280 billion (more than 17 lakh crore) industry by 2020.”
Not only it is the fifth largest employer among all sectors today, but it has also seen over a billion dollars invested in private venture and inflow of equity capital via numerous deals in the last year. Medical tourism as a segment has emerged owing to India’s increasing strength in healthcare delivery. According to a recent research conducted jointly by FICCI and KPMG, India is placed amongst the top three medical tourism destinations in Asia along with Thailand and Singapore. The report titled as ‘Medical Value Travel in India’ conducted between July and August’14 in the Asian countries concluded that these three countries receive the maximum number of medical tourists owing to low cost of treatment, quality healthcare infrastructure and availability of highly skilled doctors.
Medical tourism has grown dramatically in recent years primarily because of the high costs of treatment in developed countries along with long waiting lists. With the relative affordability of international air travel and favourable economic exchange rates, it has not only become easier for the patients of developed countries but also for the patients of the developing countries to travel to other countries like India for treatment.
Sophistication in healthcare services is not uniform across the globe. Countries where healthcare spending is limited by the government and where the private sector has not evolved much may not have the infrastructure and capability to meet the healthcare needs of their population. Many African countries, South American countries and even the Middle East nations fall under this category. According to Ashish Bhatia,Chief Operating Officer at Fortis Healthcare Limited, Gurgaon, “There has been a steady increase in the number of foreign patients visiting the Fortis network of hospitals, with an overall rise of 20 to 25 per cent in the last two years. This year, they are expecting to grow at more than the industry average, at 30 per cent. The rise in the inflow of patients to India from African countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. stands at a robust 32 per cent in the last two years.”
There is often considerable disparity in the socio-economic conditions of the population, many a times leading to situations where despite the ability to pay, patients may not be able to access quality healthcare, simply due to the lack of availability.“Patients from many countries across Africa come for wide ranging life-saving and lifeenhancing procedures like cardiac surgeries, organ transplants, bone marrow transplants, neuro and spine procedures, IVF, knee and hip replacements. Fortis caters to 10,000 foreign patients every year who come from countries in West Asia, South Asia, the African subcontinent and even Europe and the United States of America”, adds Bhatia.
The concept of medical tourism is gaining momentum in the country as well as in the rest of the world because it has become a platform for growing job opportunities. Other than core medical treatment, key players like Fortis Healthcare, Apollo Hospitals, Medanta Hospitals, Artemis Hospitals provide services such as visa assistance, complimentary airport pick-up/drop in a cab, meals for one’s companion during the hospital stay, flexibility of payment options, travel desk on hospital premises, assistance in booking a hotel room/guest house post discharge, etc.
To take advantage of the booming medical tourism, a growing trend for learning offbeat foreign languages like Pashto, Kazhaki, Turkmenin, etc. apart from the traditional French, German, Italian or Portuguese is also observed amongst the youth in many leading universities in the country. Iraq Raza Zaidi, head of the Persian department at Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, says, “Many students who learn Pashto and Persian work as interpreters in hospitals here that are receiving an increasing number of patients from Afghanistan and other neighbouring countries.”
A key competitive advantage that India has in medical tourism, in comparison to other countries, lies in the cost effectiveness it has to offer to its patients. A person coming to India for his or her medical treatment can have savings anywhere in the range of 30 to 70 per cent. Even if one considers the ticket expenses and accommodation expenses along with the treatment cost, the overall expenditure comes way lower than the treatment cost in the UK or US or other developed countries. The cost of surgery in India can be onetenth of what it is in the United States or sometimes even less. India has emerged as one of the most favourite destinations for a number of people across the globe due to its diverse cultural, spiritual and medicinal practices. India’s medical tourism sector is a growing source of foreign exchange as well as one that generates prestige and goodwill outside the country.
Apart from allopathic treatment, India offers a diverse basket of medical services and rejuvenation facilities to patients at reasonable prices. Medical tourists travel to India to make the most of India’s ancient tradition of Ayurveda and its low-cost medical tourism facilities.
There is also a dedicated department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) in India to focus on the development of education and research in the respective systems. People across the globe are increasingly realising the importance of such alternative forms of treatment that focus on naturally curing ailments and the body’s capability to heal and maintain itself.
India provides a very high level of quality in medical care. Southern states of India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala have developed extensive health facilities to boost the tourism in their respective states. Concentration of better facilities in the south is an observable trend. Some of the prominent medical hubs in the country are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Due to the establishment of some of the earliest medical schools in the southern states of India, healthcare infrastructure available here is of high standards. This has also resulted in the creation of a pool of clinical schools. This, coupled with entrepreneurial skills, has helped facilitate growth in the south at a faster pace than the rest of the states.
The rate of organ donation is also high in the southern states of India. Chennai actsas a hub of organ donation in the country and it attracts about 45 per cent of health tourists from abroad arriving in the country along with 30 to 40 per cent of domestic health tourists. The city has been termed as India’s health capital and on an average, the multi and super-specialty hospitals across the city receive up to 200 foreign patients every day.
The favourable outcomes along with affordability attract the foreign travellers to a great extent. But there is a long way to go. Currently, foreigners need the ‘M-Visa’ to come to India for medical purposes. Obtaining the visa is a huge barrier for medical tourists wanting to come here. India should focus on easing the procedures for obtaining the visa.
There are many countries that are emerging to excel in this industry. In order to make India the most preferred destination for medical care, there is an urgent need to improve air connectivity, food options, cultural adaptability, language interpretation, affordable accommodation and less waiting time at airports as these are the main parameters which help patients make a decision in choosing a destination for medical travel.