Reality check must for medical tourism

All is not well it seems with India’s medical tourism industry. A report by the Institute of Cost Accountants of India (ICAI) and PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry has drawn attention to various problems that beset the industry, including harassment of foreigners by touts and others, poor infrastructure, unclean surroundings and patients’ declining trust in hospitals. These are dimming the image of India as a medical tourism destination. Hitherto, it has been an attractive destination thanks to its many advantages. Indian medical treatment facilities are widely regarded abroad as cost-effective. A knee replacement surgery that would cost $35,000 in the US, for instance, costs around $6,600 in India. Surgical procedures for heart valve or hip replacement, bariatric surgeries, etc are far more affordable in India. This is the case too with dental and cosmetic procedures that are not covered by insurance in the West. Besides, in countries like the UK, there is a long waiting period for surgeries and patients prefer coming to India for immediate treatment. Importantly, India has a long tradition of alternative medicine techniques such as Ayurveda, Sidha, Unani, Yoga, Acupuncture and Homeopathy. These are very popular among foreigners, providing India’s medical tourism industry with variety and an edge over other competitors.

The medical tourism industry is worth billions of dollars and India has cornered a significant share of that pie. This is in jeo-pardy if it doesn’t act quickly to address the problems. Other competitors like Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore that are emerging as serious rivals would benefit if India slips up.

Over the past five years, the number of patients visiting India for medical treatment has witnessed a tenfold increase. This heartening growth will become hard to sustain if quality of treatment is poor. Besides providing them a treatment package that involves the pre-operative tests, surgery, etc, patients are offered a sightseeing trip to ‘recuperate.’ This means that patients are kept in hospital for just a few days after which they are packed off on the holiday portion of the package. They are denied post-operative attention and care. This has resulted in complications, even death. Such cases are denting India’s image as a reliable destination for medical treatment. Its skilled healthcare professionals and high-quality facilities, and not the beaches of Goa or the backwaters of Kerala, should be the USP of India’s medical tourism industry. The health of this lucrative industry must be ensured by quality and cost-effective medical treatment, clean hospitals and a transparent way of functioning.

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