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Indian medical tourism changing direction

For many years India targeted Europeans and Americans for cosmetic surgery and other non-essential treatment at a very low price. It has reluctantly found that most people seeking these services when offered prices a tenth or a fifth of at home, are scared off as cosmetic surgery requires pampering and care, and it is not an area where people compromise on quality to save money; and however good Indian cosmetic surgery actually is, the European and US mindset is that if looks cheap then it must also be low quality.

Also, offering Americans and Western Europeans conveyor belt surgery at knock down prices, even if the medical service is perfect, misses the mark. Apart from people already in India for other reasons, most of those attracted from the West are of ethnic Indian origin and accepting of low cost surgery with few extras.  

On the other hand, people from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa often do not have home based alternatives, accept a more basic standard of customer care, and are more price driven. Many of these come for chronic and serious medical treatment which is why there are divisions emerging between those keen to emphasize the serious nature of treatment and those still promoting the older ‘come to India for low price treatment and have a holiday too’ approach.

RNCOS estimates that 2010 saw 600,000 patients travelling to India and spending $1 billion in getting treated here. But even they admit that these are industry estimates, as the government does not have any official statistics. Hospital groups such as Apollo, Fortis Hospital and Max estimate that the business is growing by 30 to 40% year-on-year.

According to PwC, 80% of foreign patients going to India are from neighbouring Asian countries and from Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, and increasingly from Africa. PwC admits that they and the industry expected most patients to come from the US and for cosmetic and regenerative treatment. But the majority actually comes from other countries and for cardiac treatment, cancer treatment, knee replacement and other serious ailments. Therefore, tourism is not really of importance.

India is hoping to be a market leader in medical tourism, just as it did with outsourcing. But as major European and American firms more concerned with quality of service than price, are closing Indian call centres to take them back home, a few voices are beginning to express concern that promoting low-price driven medical tourism has risks.

Preetha Reddy of Apollo Hospitals has commented, "At Apollo Hospitals, we prefer to term this business opportunity as medical value travel as people travel to our hospitals for serious life-threatening health conditions, which essentially need highly skilled doctors and medical infrastructure, and not mere minor treatments such as cosmetic enhancements, dental work or wellness which can be coupled with holidays, as the term medical tourism implies."

One of India’s problems is the large number of regions, hospitals and doctors all competing for medical tourism in a country with 3371 hospitals and 750,000 registered doctors. In practice, much of the business is going to larger groups and specialists. Apollo Hospitals claims to attract the largest numbers of international patients followed by Max, Fortis and Workhardt.

But the fly in the ointment is the Indian government. It introduced a medical visa (M visa) that is faster and easier to get than a normal tourism visa. But anyone coming in on an M visa has to physically go within 14 days of arrival to a local foreigners regional registration office-even if they have to be carried into India on a stretcher. So almost everyone is still using tourist visas.

Source IMTJ