For a rawboned and coy 19-year old, Mahdi Rahman has surprising career goals. “I want to be a policeman who uses kung fu to fight (criminals),” Rahman pauses midsentence to catch his breath, before adding sheepishly, “and play football…. just like Cristiano Ronaldo!”
Sitting by his bedside Abdullah Rahman smiles weakly at his frail son. Mahdi, a high school student, is still bandaged across the chest from a critical surgery a week earlier to mend a hole in his heart. “Who knows what he will be,” says Abdullah pensively. “I just hope my son recovers quickly so we can go home soon.”
For the Rahmans, home is 1,000 kilometers away in Ghazni, a mostly rural province in eastern Afghanistan, and a far cry from the plush metropolis of Gurgaon neighboring India’s capital, New Delhi, where Mahdi underwent the life-saving procedure.
At first traveling to India had seemed like a daunting proposition to the 59-year old with a meager income and a large family to support. But Abdullah knew he could trust his judgment, because that’s where everyone went.
“From childhood Mahdi could never run around or play like other boys without feeling shortness of breath, and nobody could understand why. Then last year the doctor in Ghazni told me to take him to India after he became ill. That’s where the big hospitals and surgeons are,” Abdullah said.
“In Afghanistan we don’t have such facilities or huge machines,” explains the father of eight.
In the past decade India has emerged as one of the fastest growing global healthcare destinations, particularly for patients from conflict countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Somalia where years of war have decimated public medical infrastructure. Each year the south Asian economy is attracting close to 400,000 foreign patients, half of which are from war-ravaged countries.
“We are treating 20,000 patients per year from Iraq and Afghanistan in our hospital alone, although people are traveling from as far afield as Fiji, Tuvalu, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Libya, Uganda, Burundi, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan,” says Anas Wajid, sales director at Max Hospital in New Delhi.
“War and protracted violence in countries like Iraq have wrecked their healthcare system. In places like Afghanistan such infrastructure never got fully developed in the first place. The country doesn’t have a single MRI machine or PET scan. It has forced people to look beyond their borders for most affordable and quality care, and India has filled the gap perfectly,” adds Wajid.
Interestingly, in 2014, the wife of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave birth to a girl at Fortis Hospital in New Delhi following complications that couldn’t be treated in Kabul.
Some of the most commonly sought procedures in India include bone marrow transplants, reconstructive surgeries, heart transplants, treatment of cancers, orthopaedic and neurological treatments. “We also see a significant number of patients with shrapnel wounds, amputations, burns, and blindness as a direct consequence of war. Once we had a soldier from the DRC who had a bullet shrapnel wedged in his heart,” says Atamjot Grewal, director of medical operations at Fortis hospital.
Low cost has been a key driver in India’s rise as a medical destination of choice. For years Singapore and Thailand have been the market leaders in Asia, providing medical care to patients across the globe at a fraction of the cost of the West. However, in the last decade the emergence of Chennai, New Delhi, and Mumbai as the new international medical value hubs providing advanced tertiary care has firmly placed India in the league, on par with its Asian neighbors