Beaches, parties, shacks on the beach can make for a very alluring destination. Goa has been that and more for Indians as well as for thousands of foreigners around the world. It had been pretty smooth sailing for several years with numbers increasing every year but like all good things it never lasts. The last few years have witnessed a perceptible drop in the number of foreign tourists due to financial considerations. The Russian incursion into Ukraine and the resulting sanctions witnessed the strengthening of the dollar against the rouble. This increased the cost of the airfares resulting in a slump in Russian tourists to the State. Thankfully the domestic tourists kept coming in droves and saved the blushes of State officials.
It also led to some of the more perceptive people to question if this was going to be the template of the future. More importantly if other avenues like rural or medical tourism could be seriously explored. The idea of making Goa a stop for medical tourists has been circulating for well over a decade.
The Herald spoke to professionals in the medical field to gain an understanding of the challenges. Dr Deep Bhandare, orthopaedic who practices in Panjim and one who heads the Health Committee at the GCCI said serious attempts were made in the past and should be made because Goa has several advantages going for it. The doctor said many foreigners from the middle-east, Iran, Iraq, Africa and the CIS countries visited India for treatment. Goa, he said despite having the beaches, the general culture needed to ask itself what is it they were willing to offer those interested in coming here for medical assistance.
He said “What do we have to offer foreigners who may come here? Which hospital in the State is accredited to the National Accreditation Board for hospitals (NABH) to take care of them? Manipal is, Wockhardt has shut down, SMRC has some accreditation. So that’s the ground reality.”
He went on to say that specialised surgeries, kidney transplants, joint replacements, eye surgeries could only be done at Manipal and nowhere else. That was not a situation to be in if one wanted to promote the State as a medical tourism destination. The only foreigners doctors were treating in Goa these days were those who had met with an accident whilst in Goa as a tourist.
He felt it was important to create a complete health check package provide hip replacements, cardiac surgeries /procedures, offer them chemotherapies, eye surgeries etc. He felt it was important to develop such facilities. Collaborations with either hospitals in the target countries or a partnership with insurance companies to ensure it were a success. It was important for the state tourism department and the state government to work and ensure this aspect was highlighted during the road shows held abroad.
There were he said a lot of injured patients in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan who could be airlifted to Goa. This State he said had much to learn from Chennai, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai which had foreigners flying in and seeking medical help.
Ameya Velingkar of Classic Hospital smiled on hearing the word medical tourism. He said “It should have taken off a long time ago. It is that one business, we lost. Chennai is at the very peak in this business. Goa is beautiful, famous in the tourist trade, we have a wonderful culture and a large percentage of the population speak English. I have been trying to do it for over 5 years but the infrastructure is not being provided by the government. Let me explain. If a patent is sick and his visa is expiring, it is a tedious process to get it extended. Patients need to be helped. I have experienced these practical issues.”
Another issue he cited was the absence of direct flights to Goa. All the flights largely landed in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai. Despite these handicaps, he performed 10 knee replacements on patients from various countries of Africa, Iraq and Britain. Goa he said was also cheaper. A knee replacement here would cost Rs 2.5 lakh here whereas in Delhi it could go up to Rs 5.5 lakh.
Like many hospitals in their own way Sujoy Das of AV da Costa hospital gets one or two patients from Africa though at one point of time it was much more. He said everyone had tried with big hospitals even going to Africa but it required sustained effort. Today, middle easterners visit Mumbai and Delhi, Chennai was a favourite for Bangladeshis looking for liver transplants and other complicated surgeries. However till date the Europeans had not turned up.
Bossuet Afonso who practises in Campal was categorical when he said as long as medical care was not standardised, the State should not think of medical tourism. He said “As long as the Clinical Establishment Act is not cleared, no quality can be enforced. At the hospital we are setting up we are putting in all the systems and we will get the NABH accreditation which is important.”
Another doctor who did not want to come on record said “There is a strong lobby that run nursing homes who do not want it to happen. Today in the hospital where are the trained nurses, they get anyone who learns on the job. In such a scenario, how can we even think of medical tourism.”
Perhaps it will have to be individuals like Ajoy Estibeiro who provide medical assistance to those who fall in the State and flies them out with his team where the answer lies. Ajoy usually takes anywhere between one or even four patients in a month whilst providing them medical assistance. This is not medical tourism in the strictest conventional sense but as he said “I intend to launch something new for the international market in Goa very soon. It is innovative and will mean medical tourism. Watch this space. The market does not wait for anyone, we have to find our way.”
Perhaps in that lies the future. Forget about the incentives from the government and have the gumption to jump in and fight for a tiny slice of what is a large market valued in the billions of dollars.