India’s Medical Tourism movement, Decoding its Opportunities and Challenges

Jun 12 2019
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“A Patients Without Borders report estimated that in other popular medical tourism destinations such as Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico and Turkey, patients can save between 40 to 65 per cent on procedures. While in India, the savings can start from 65 per cent and go up to 90 per cent with patients receiving a high quality of care.”

Recent figures from India’s Ministry of Tourism have highlighted that the country’s medical tourism industry could grow by 200 per cent by 2020, hitting US$9 billion. These figures clearly show that there is no doubt that India has become a force to reckon with in providing medical and healthcare of high standards at affordable costs. With its advanced facilities, easy visas, skilled doctors and low-cost treatment options, along with its expertise in alternative medicine, India continues to rank high on the list for medical tourists. Medical tourism has been described as “travel across international borders with the intention of receiving some form of medical treatment.” This can cover a range of services such as dental care, cosmetic surgery, elective surgery and fertility treatment, among others. India, for instance, has established itself as a centre of excellence for cancer treatments, transplants and cardiac surgery, neurosurgery, spine surgery, transplants, bariatric surgery, trauma-related orthopaedic surgery and IVF. The country is also home to a number of Joint Commission International (JCI)- accredited and National Accreditation Board for Hospitals & Healthcare Providers (NABH)-accredited hospitals and boasts high-quality medical technology, equipment, facilities and infrastructure that consistently meets stringent international standards.

A Patients Without Borders report estimated that in other popular medical tourism destinations such as Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico and Turkey, patients can save between 40 to 65 per cent on procedures. While in India, the savings can start from 65 per cent and go up to 90 per cent with patients receiving a high quality of care. Today, Indian doctors have become synonymous with superior medical training, as a number of them are trained abroad in reputed institutions. Furthermore, large homegrown hospital groups such as Apollo, which have become well-known international brands, also establish strategic partnerships with countries around the world, in order to make their expertise accessible.

It is interesting to observe that two completely different profiles of medical tourists travel to India. Patients from Bangladesh and Afghanistan continue to rank higher in terms of medical tourist arrivals in India. Foreign patients from Oman, Maldives, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen also continue to visit the country for low-cost treatments. However, a number of tourists from the Western countries flock to India due to lesser wait times when compared to their countries and engage in traditional holistic health practices such as Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, and Homeopathy. It is interesting to note that those from less developed countries come particularly for the medical procedures and stay back for the recovery phase, while those from developed countries expect excellent and more value-added services.

While a lot is being done, in order to bring India at par with popular medical tourism destinations in South East Asia, stakeholders in the country need to consolidate their efforts and address certain key issues plaguing the industry.
Medical tourism in India faces evident challenges. These include improving hospitality in hospitals. India is famous for its state-of-the-art hotels and warm hospitality, but this has yet to be seen in the medical tourism industry. Initiatives should also be taken to provide good package deals in partnerships with airlines and hotels that include flights, stay, treatment and, a post-operative vacation to explore the sights and sounds of the culturally rich country. A possible goal would be for hospitals, tour operators and state governments to come together and promote medical tourism.

Furthermore, the country ranks low in its regulatory system when compared to some competitor countries. There definitely needs to be an increased focus on aspects such as timely issuance of medical visa and registration of medical facilitators. These will go a long way in helping the patient and their families who will be travelling a great distance. Issues such as faster immigration clearance for medical tourists, ambulance services at airports, proper transport infrastructure, affordable accommodation, nutrition as per a patient’s requirement, hygiene and an environment of holistic care, should also be looked into in greater detail to offer a seamless experience.

India also faces the issue of middlemen who liaise between foreign tourists and hospitals. These could be translators, guides, or facilitators and their prevalence can hike up healthcare costs drastically. Establishing clear communication channels, such as simple e-mail communication or having all the information clearly mentioned on websites, will ensure a more transparent process. A serious issue that needs to be looked into immediately is the fact that the Indian healthcare industry suffers from serious concerns of hygiene and patient safety. Indian hospitals are often notorious for not following strict Infection Control protocols and reports have stressed that the country has one with of the highest proportions of post-operative infections, which is a cause of great worry.

The country also lacks a clear marketing strategy at the national level, the way some other South East Asian countries do, selling bundled healthcare services internationally along with wellness solutions. Another key concern is post-operation follow up. Developing telemedicine relationships with Western providers to facilitate consultation with Indian providers as well as pre-operative and follow-up care will build more trust in the Indian healthcare system.

The Government of India could also facilitate private sector investments in the domestic medical device and pharmaceutical sectors to promote local innovation and reduce dependence on imported products. These investments could further help in reducing the costs of treatments in the country and maintain its competitive edge. Indian hospitals could also form alliances and tie-up with foreign institutions for assured supply of medical tourists and form partnerships with international insurance providers.

Indian medical tourism industry is indeed on a robust growth path. The country needs to maintain its competitive edge by finding newer ways of improving outcomes, patient safety and cost optimisation while adopting the latest medical technology in its practice. The government should take the necessary steps as a regulator and as a facilitator of private investment in healthcare. If all these challenges are faced head-on, there is no stopping from India becoming the destination of choice for medical tourists!

Source: Medgate Today.

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