The medical value travel (MVT) industry has emerged as one of the fastest growing segments of the sunrise tourism sector in India. The country’s rich history, cultural heritage and diversity, exotic locales, coupled with high quality yet affordable medical facilities, have fascinated budget and luxury travellers alike across the globe. And this was reflected in the Indian government’s latest data placed in parliament, showing a whopping 45 per cent rise in the number of issued medical visas in 2016 alone, as compared to past records. According to K. Sujatha Rao, former secretary of health and family welfare in the Indian government, India has a huge potential for medical tourism because of highly qualified medical professionals and the capability to provide services at about 10 per cent of what it would cost in the United States or other developed countries with equal clinical outcomes.
As escalating costs forces more and more people from advanced nations to seek opportunities for combining high quality yet cost-effective medical treatment with leisure travel beyond respective national boundaries, more than 50 countries have identified medical tourism as a national industry. With an estimated global market of around $40-55 billion (Dh147-202 billion), India too has emerged as a front-runner in the international MVT arena — with more than 500,000 foreign patients availing treatment annually — owing to the country’s relatively low cost but high-quality treatment facilities, in addition to the scope of using alternative system of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy for adjunct therapy in critical lifestyle diseases successfully. However, amid growing influx of medical tourists, India has yet to develop a standardised policy framework, essential for an organised medical tourism ecosystem. Alwyn Didar Singh, principal advisor to the president of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), candidly admits that despite tremendous potential, lack of comprehensive policy and strategy has slackened growth in the sector, with only an estimated market size of $3 billion growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 15 per cent. Singh, however, is optimistic that adequate focus and effective implementation can make MVT a $9 billion opportunity for India by 2020. The industry is cognizant of a declining medical tourism brand value, contends Singh, adding that Ficci’s National Committee on Medical Value Travel, on its part, has been advocating allocation of funds, through the India Brand Equity Forum, for building a unique MVT brand, in line with the government’s “Incredible India” initiative.
With more than 22-25 per cent recorded hike in medical tourism in 2016 over previous years, the real challenge for India is to create enabling infrastructure as well as enact patient-friendly laws, apart from strengthening the regulatory mechanism through adequate reforms. Singh says, the government, in conjunction with the industry, is already in action mode, taking steps to remove existing barriers and concerns, such as streamlining the role of medical facilitators by empanelling them with accreditation bodies like NABH; creating guidelines of engagement between facilitators and hospitals; lowering the entry-exit barriers for medical visas; extending e-tourist visas and providing visa on arrival as well as multiple-entry visas based on treatment requirement and improving facilities at airports, including separate immigration desks for medical tourists, ambulance on tarmac et al. Besides, updated medico-legal information is essential for enabling inbound medical tourists access accurate data on visa rules or applicable laws for different procedures. Also, the Indian government’s decision to put a price cap on all implants, rather than those targeted at the mass market, has come in for lot of criticism. “This has put India’s reputation as a premier medical tourism destination in mortal jeopardy,” says Viren Shetty, senior vice-president of strategy and planning at India’s famed Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital, adding, this move will deprive inbound medical tourists of the latest technologies available in the field. Shetty, also underlines the importance of seamless connectivity for consolidating the gains in medical tourism. He is in fact livid about the abysmal air link between African nations and India and rightly feels that underserved countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen and Ethiopia should be bridged with India’s medical metros directly.
For a geographically huge country like India — with a billion-plus population, out of which 26 per cent lives below the poverty line — maintaining an efficient health-care delivery system at the primary level is a Herculean task, both in terms of logistics and arrangement of funds. Since a vast majority is often deprived of basic health care, promoting medical tourism for revenue generation can invite questions on grounds of ethics, says Rao. Perhaps, the answer lies in effectively redeploying the benefits accrued from a robust medical tourism industry for universalising affordable health care in India, which currently hosts about 1.27 million foreign medical assistance seekers and is poised to record a two-fold rise in inbound medical tourists over the next four years. Singh agrees, advocating proper channelisation of extra revenue generated from medical tourism for strengthening the ailing and under-resourced public health system. And Shetty explains, higher spending pattern of medical tourists actually enables cross-subsidisation of underprivileged patients relying on government schemes.
Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.