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Shaping Medical Value Travel for India

In Article
March 28, 2019

Dr. Harish Pillai
CEO – Aster Hospitals & Clinics, India
Aster DM Healthcare

As the seventh largest country in the world, India stands apart from the rest of Asia, marked off by mountains and the sea, which give the country a distinct geographical entity. It is bounded by the snow covered Great Himalayas in the north, stretches southwards towards tropical rain forests and tapers off into the Indian Ocean between the Bay of Bengal on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west.

Therefore, the country offers a vast range of tourism choices, diverse in land and nature, people, cuisine, faiths, music, arts, dance forms, crafts, adventure, sports, spirituality, history; which vary from one state to another. The World Travel & Tourism Council estimated that tourism generated an amount equivalent to 9.4% of India’s GDP and 8% of total employment of India in 2017. With the sector predicted to grow at the rate of 6.9% per annum, revenues from tourism is are expected to touch USD 450 Bn. While the Ministry of Tourism maintains the Incredible India! campaign focused on promoting the tourism in India, concerted efforts are being made to promote niche tourism products such as rural, cruise, medical and eco-tourism.

Medical tourism is the convergence of foreign tourist arrivals and the requirement of medical assistance wherein the leisure aspect as well as the healthcare experience have an equal weightage. In October 2015, India’s medical tourism sector was estimated to be worth US$3 billion, and it is projected to grow to US$7–8 billion by 2020. Unaffordable costs of healthcare and limited coverage for all treatments in countries like US, UK, despite having the best of facilities, drive underinsured and uninsured patients to seek medical assistance in other countries.

There is also the factor of increased waiting times of healthcare facilities in regions such as the Middle East, portions of Africa, etc., that can pay but lack quality care and talent. Additionally, accreditation amongst healthcare facilities provides quality conscious patients confidence and security on clinical outcomes. While the JCI is considered the gold standard in healthcare and is globally recognized, hospitals certified by the national boards like NABH also tend to meet global standards in clinical outcomes and processes.

A Medical Value Tourist is required to interact with multiple stakeholders right from the point of referral till returning to his / her home country. These stakeholders can broadly be identified as providers, facilitators, accreditation agencies, government, insurers and regulators. They have a major role in determining the quality of experience of MVT patients and their family members.

India is also considered as a preferred destination for cardiology, orthopaedics, transplant and ophthalmology in curative care. India also enjoys high credibility in wellness, preventive and alternative medicine. The Medical Tourism Market Report: 2015 found that India was one of the lowest cost and highest quality of all medical tourism destinations, it offers wide variety of procedures at about one-tenth the cost of similar procedures in the United States.

Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and the National Capital Region receives the highest number of foreign patients primarily from South Eastern countries. Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) accounted for 30% share of foreign medical tourist arrivals. Other major sources of patients include Africa and the Middle East, particularly the Persian Gulf countries.

It is therefore clear that an opportunity presents itself for the country to earn a sizeable amount of foreign exchange by leveraging infrastructure, clinical expertise and quality for the international medical traveller. The clear rationale for supporting MVT in Indian hospitals is not just to earn the valuable foreign exchange but also to cross subsidize the domestic patients.

The incremental revenue offered by international patient facilitates better investments in infrastructure, technology, and staff training what will naturally benefit all domestic patients. If you look at some of the recent legislative changes that have taken place, while overall it is for the benefit of the common man, the lack of consensus amongst all stake holders, especially the providers do pose a practical challenge.

In the recent past, policies implemented by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority on Cardiac Stents; the implementation of minimum wages in the health sector are some that may pose to be detrimental for this sector. We hope that the Government of the day will relook at the impact of such policies frequently and tweak it appropriately for the benefit of the sector overall.

Some of these decisions puts India at a distinct disadvantage versus free market competitors of MVT such as Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia. If the perception grows that good quality and new trends in healthcare are not available in the Indian market, we are bound to lose a sizeable amount of niche market to competition in the neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, the current level of pricing prevalent for a medical value traveller must be revised, thus substantially reducing the gap between us and the competitors. The sector is still struggling overall despite a few positive policy changes being made by the Government of India to attract more Medical Value Travel visitors to enter our country. All stakeholders need to have a unified vision and not look at short term gains to make our country an effective Asian giant in the field of MVT.