From time immemorial, India has sculpted itself as a centre for medicine and healthcare. A peek into the history books will reveal a plethora of facts into the country’s medical past, when great pioneers such as Charaka and Sushruta made ingenious breakthroughs in Ayurvedic medicine, as was the order of the day.
Even in recent times, India’s tradition as a tourist hub, has been paralleled by its distinction as a medical tourism destination, a rare confluence of warm ‘hospitality’ and state-of-the-art ‘hospitals’. Even as we read, people from around the world are making a beeline to hospitals here, wanting to get well.
So what exactly is medical tourism? A unique term that adds new dimensions to the concept of ‘wellness’, medical tourism refers to the travel of people to another country for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment in that country. Nilaya Varma, Partner (Infrastructure, Government and Healthcare), KPMG, puts it as, “Medical value travel is the term that has been preferred to refer to the trend of patients seeking healthcare beyond borders. The operative word here being ‘value’, since patients seek value when they choose to undertake travel for healthcare.”
The term ‘value’ is also of importance in this context since the practice of medical tourism adds and generates value for the country under deliberation.
“Medical tourism or travel for health comprises of 2 different segments. One segment comprises of people who travel to other countries for rejuvenation purposes, and the other segment comprises of people who travel for curative care that is not available in their countries. While the former is a luxury segment, the latter is economy,” Varma adds.
Above all, it is for critical, terminal, specialist, intensive and tertiary care and treatment that foreigners seek India. Historically, India has been welcoming critical cases from Iraq, Nigeria, Tanzania, Oman, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the CIS, among others.
“Medical tourism in India is a fast growing segment. Hospitals participating in medical tourism are increasing focus on niche segments; hospitals specialising in dental, reproductive and wellness are also forming an sizeable portion of Indian medical tourism,” said Dr Sudarshan Ballal, Chairman of leading healthcare provider Manipal Health Enterprises.
Favoured destinations in India is led by Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, 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 also resulted in the creation of a pool of clinical schools and entrepreneurial skills made available to the medical tourism industry to help facilitate growth at a faster pace than the rest of the states,” Varma says.
Today, Chennai caters to 40% of the medical tourism in India, making it the top destination for treatment. Delhi NCR with some premier hospitals such as Medanta, has emerged preferred destination on the medical tourism map. Even Kerala aims to become India’s healthcare hub in 5 years.
India and the World
According to data published by the Indian Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), the overall Indian healthcare market today is worth $100 billion, and is expected to grow to $280 billion by 2020, a CAGR of 22.9%.
“The Indian medical tourism industry is pegged at $3 billion per annum, with tourist arrivals estimated at 2,30,000. The Indian medical tourism industry is expected to reach $6 billion by 2018, with the number of people arriving in the country for medical treatment set to double over the next 4 years,” IBEF further informs.
Globally, medical tourism is fast evolving. Established destinations like Thailand and Singapore are being challenged by upcoming destinations like India and Turkey, while in order to capitalise on the movements of medical tourists across Europe, the US and the UK, newer destinations like Poland, Hungary, and Costa Rica are haring in healthcare.
Says Varma, “On one hand, rising cost of healthcare services has compelled patients from developed nations to seek low-cost healthcare services in other countries. On the other hand, lack of healthcare infrastructure and expertise for complex surgeries has motivated patients from developing nations to seek quality healthcare services in other countries. This cross-border movement is also triggered by rising non-communicable diseases, which required specialised treatments and entail high treatment cost.”
As a medical tourism destination, India is known for high-class treatment at affordable costs. The country’s cost arbitrage gives it a definite edge over other countries like Singapore and Malaysia. Medical treatment in India enables savings of 30-70% on total expenditure.
“The right ingredients for an active medical tourism programme are skilled doctors, state-of-the-art medical facilities capable of providing excellent medical care, especially in niche areas like transplants, joint replacements, cancer therapy, heart disease, and bariatric surgery, for a fraction of the cost in their home countries, in a country that is well-connected, safe, and has good infrastructure,” Dr Ballal states.
“Indian doctors and their reputation globally is a definitive advantage, along with cost effectiveness, which in many fields is about 20% or less of the cost in the Western world. Also, snazzy medical facilities and proficiency in English has upped India’s reputation as a medical tourism hub,” he adds.
In a similar tone, Varma adds that in addition to cost arbitrage, India has developed high reputation in advanced and lifesaving treatments in the fields of cardiology, orthopaedics, nephrology, oncology, and neuro surgery, which has a lot of potential, and by right promotional strategies, can turn the country into a leading player in medical tourism.
Where the money comes from
While medical tourists to India have reason to smile, the joy is much on the face of the care-givers as well. In terms of the business that this field generates, experts estimate that around $20 billion is earned from the allopathic branch, and alternate forms of medicine, including Ayurveda and wellness programmes. And prospects are pretty high to sustain this growth for the next decade.
Experts speak about domestic medical tourism, which is very much prevalent in Indian geography, and is mainly driven by inadequacy of medical facilities in certain states. “This geographical skewness arises due to either inadequate spend on developing healthcare infrastructure by the state governments, or preference of private players for urban locations,” Varma says.
Even as India’s rise as a medical tourism hub is evident, several major problems exist. Firstly, in terms of domestic medical tourism, there is inequitable distribution of suitable healthcare infrastructure within the country, to balance the heavy influx of patients at super-speciality hospitals in few urban centres. In terms of inbound medical tourism, there are a few procedural glitches that ought to be fixed.
Get well soon
Meanwhile, to improve the country’s role in medical tourism, the Government of India has taken up initiatives for the promotion and augmentation of the industry, such as offering a separate category of medical visa, which can be extended for an additional 12 months beyond the one-year issue period. Besides, a no-hindrance-clearance has been provided for medical tourists at the airports.
For the accreditation of hospitals, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has set up a National Accreditation Board for Hospitals, under the Ministry of Commerce, while there are plans to build 50 tourism circuits, along with a medical circuit connecting hubs of modern medicine and Ayurveda.
So as the health of India’s economy improves, it is to be seen how it further intensifies its bid to rule global healthcare. Varma confidently forecasts: “With its inherent strengths, and burgeoning healthcare costs worldwide, India stands a great chance of exporting its healthcare services in the form of medical value travel to patients not only in the developing nations, but in developed countries as well.” A healthy country’s care for a healthy world!