India Fosters Growing ‘Medical Tourism’ Sector

India is hoping to expand its tourist industry – to include visitors with heart conditions and cataracts. Indeed, medical tourism, where foreigners travel abroad in search of low cost, world-class medical treatment, is gaining popularity in countries like India. The field has such lucrative potential that Indian finance minister Jaswant Singh called for India to become a “global health destination.” And, with prices at a fraction of those in the US or Britain, the concept will likely have broad consumer appeal – if people can overcome their prejudices about health care in developing countries. Though the quality of health care for the poor in countries like India is undeniably low, private facilities offer advanced technology and procedures on par with hospitals in developed nations. One Indian hospital director maintains, "In a corporate hospital, once the door is closed you could be in a hospital in America.” – YaleGlobal

India Fosters Growing 'Medical Tourism' Sector

Ray Marcelo
Wednesday, July 2, 2003

India is promoting the "high-tech healing" of its private healthcare sector as a tourist attraction.

The government hopes to encourage a budding trade in medical tourism, selling foreigners the idea of travelling to India for low-cost but world-class medical treatment.

Naresh Trehan, executive director of Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre, a leading private healthcare provider, says India has established world-class expertise in practices such as cardiac care, cosmetic surgery, joint replacements and dentistry.

Merging medical expertise and tourism became government policy when finance minister Jaswant Singh, in this year's budget, called for India to become a "global health destination".

If foreigners respond, a new medical tourism industry could be generating revenues of Rs100bn ($2.1bn, €1.9bn, £1.3bn) by 2012, according to a report by McKinsey Consultants and the Confederation of Indian Industry, a business group.

There is no doubt that the Indian medical industry's main appeal is low-cost treatment. Most estimates claim treatment costs in India start at around a tenth of the price of comparable treatment in America or Britain.

For example, in April Madras Medical Mission, a Chennai-based hospital, successfully conducted a complex heart operation on an 87-year-old American patient at a reported cost of $8,000 (€7,000, £4,850) including the cost of his airfare and a month's stay in hospital. The patient claimed that a less complex operation in America had earlier cost him $40,000.

Other procedures such as diagnostic services offer significant cost-savings.

Take the rising popularity of "preventive health screening". At one private clinic in London a thorough men's health check-up that includes blood tests, electro-cardiogram tests, chest x-rays, lung tests and abdominal ultrasound costs £345 ($574, €500). By comparison, a comparable check-up at a clinic operated by Delhi-based healthcare company Max Healthcare costs $84.

Yet cost-savings may not be enough to foster a trade in medical tourism. Unfairly or not, most foreigners would not think of India as a land of good health.

The sight of the country's overcrowded public hospitals, open sewers and garbage-littered streets would unsettle most visitors' confidence about public sanitation standards in India.

Private healthcare providers argue that foreigners can be sheltered from such nastiness, and that the quality of India's corporate hospitals are world-class. "In a corporate hospital, once the door is closed you could be in a hospital in America," says P.V.R.K. Prasad, director-general of the Dr Marri Channa Reddy Human Resource Development Institute.

Vishal Bali, vice-president of Wockhardt Hospitals, points out as proof of quality that the US private health insurers Blue Cross and Blue Shield insure patients treat-ed at his group's hospitals.

The British health insurer Bupa also insures the costs of treatment at Wockhardt hospitals.

Mr Bali adds that Wockhardt is in talks with Britain's National Health Service about outsourcing the treatment of British patients to India.

According to Hari Prasad, vice-president of Apollo Hospitals in Hyderabad, foreigners should have confidence in India's medical system because many Britons and Americans are accustomed to being treated by expatriate Indian doctors.

In any case, most private healthcare providers hold modest ambitions about which foreign patients would come to India seeking treatment.

For instance, of the 5,200 hospital beds run by the Apollo hospital group, about 100 beds are usually occupied by foreign patients, mostly from the Middle East, Africa and countries of south Asia.

Indeed, demand for medical tourism is most likely to come from among the 20m-strong Indian diaspora, says Deep Kalra, chief executive officer of travel agency

Mr Kalra says wealthy first- and second-generation expatriate Indians are aware of the rise of India's high quality, low-cost hospitals.

He estimates there is a potential market of some 12m expatriate Indians who would combine regular visits to India and save time and money by undergoing non-emergency procedures such as eye operations, dental work, cosmetic surgery and knee surgery. Mr Kalra's agency plans to launch a medical tourism package later this year.

Still, some remain sceptical about medical tourism's potential. Sumanjit Chaudhry, an executive at India's Max Healthcare group, says: "I imagine if someone is sick and ill they won't want to have a holiday. You'll hardly see a guy who comes here for heart surgery leaping off and going to the beach."

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003.