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Medical tourism is no longer a cosmetic job: patients from the West are now choosing India for heavy-duty surgeries at a fraction of the cost back home.

twitter-logoE Kumar Sharma | Print Edition: May 2, 2010

When James Michael, 35, began trawling the Internet for an affordable option to US health care, the prompt response from Fortis Healthcare in Bangalore to his enquiries about cervical disc replacement surgery brought him to the hospital recently. Thousands of foreigners are choosing Indian hospitals for complex procedures, not just dental or cosmetic work as was the case when medical tourism started. "Today, India is getting travellers from around 35 countries as against mainly from neighbouring countries and West Asia five years ago," says Vishal Bali, CEO, Fortis Healthcare.

Fortis alone treats close to 2,000 American patients a year now between its Mumbai and Bangalore hospitals, or ten times the Americans it handled in 2005. Both Fortis hospitals are accredited to the JCI or the Joint Commission International, a nonprofit US body that sets standards.

Preetha Reddy, Managing Director, Apollo Hospitals, an early starter in medical tourism (the current term is 'medical value travel'), says that, five years ago, 80 per cent of the 'foreign' patients came from South Asia. "Today, it is down to 30 per cent with more patients coming in from a wide range of countries," says Reddy.

And it is not just the chains. Take HealthCare Global, a Bangalore-based cancer specialist. "Today, six per cent of our total patients come from abroad and this number is growing at 20 per cent per annum with patients mainly from Africa, Bangladesh, West Asia, Canada and some European countries like Norway and The Netherlands," says Dr B.S. Ajai Kumar, Chairman & CEO, HealthCare Global.

On the second day of his admission, doctors operated on Michael to replace a disc—a cushion between two bones—in the neck region with an artificial one.

Reddy says 300,000-odd medical tourists visited India last year, of which more than half are estimated to have headed into wellness centres promoted by locations like Kerala. But there is a clear trend among the rest towards tertiary care.

That a patient with a serious health problem is willing to take a 24-hour flight for treatment indicates a coming of age for the sector, which has been investing in facilities and techniques.

Dr G.S. Rao, Managing Director, Yashoda Group of Hospitals, which has units in Hyderabad and Secunderabad and is the first in South Asia to offer rapid arc radiation therapy, cites another factor attracting longdistance patients. "We have seen a perceptible increase in patients inflows with the new international airport coming up in Hyderabad," he says.

When Michael and his wife finally checked out of Fortis, the bill was $15,000, including a week's stay in a five-star-like facility, against the US rate of $30,000-40,000.

Attracting the best

  • India gets patients from around 35 countries today; five years ago, most were from neighbouring countries and West Asia.
  • Foreign patients now taking 24-hour flights to India to seek treatment for life-threatening conditions. Earlier, it was for cosmetic surgery.
  • Healthcare players are investing in the latest technologies, conducting beating heart surgeries and using robotics.
  • Some international healthcare insurance entities have started offering options to cover elective procedures in India.

Prescription for Growth

  • Speedier grant of medical visa, even visa on arrival.
  • Better linkages between healthcare and tourism.
  • Better airports and roads, not just in pockets but at all locations. More hospitals accredited to the JCI.

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