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An emerging and promising sector for the Indian medical tourism industry brings a ray of hope for international tourists. With a footfall of close to 2 million patients across 78 countries, the industry is slated to reach massive proportions in near future being a gross revenue generator for the Indian economy. The 21st century has witnessed a phenomenal increase in cross-border travel to the Indian territory,  home to pioneering treatments, ground breaking research and cutting-edge technology. Sonali Patranabish does an in-depth analysis

India’s sunshine industry, the medical tourism sector has displayed tremendous growth in the recent past. The country has been deemed as a hot destination and a prime hub for quality healthcare services. It is indeed heartening to see the Indian medical tourism market contributing to a fair share of 6.5 per cent of the global tourism market.

Home to some of the oldest medical systems in the world  Ayurveda, Panchakarma,Yoga, the Indian medical tourism sector has flourished., backed by our know-how, professional expertise as well healthcare infrastructure. Medical value travel a.k.a medical tourism is deemed as one of the fastest growing industries due to the affordability, availability and accessibility of quality healthcare services and cutting-edge medical technologies.

Foreign tourists find value in developing nations like India and opt for treatment modules centered around three focus areas ie invasive ,diagnostic or lifestyle. Few of the key factors that international tourists consider before making a choice to travel across the border to avail medical services are regulatory, economic and political factors. India clearly has a competitive advantage in this aspect.

International tourists throng Indian hospitals, cancer care centres and IVF clinics due to the seamless services they have to offer. Dr Gurushankar, Chairman, Meenakshi Mission Hospital and Research Centre, Madurai says that India has state of the art facilities on par with the global level. He further states,  “India’s healthcare sector offers a diverse array of services, all backed by cutting-edge technology and skilled medical professionals.”

Demystifying the growth strategy

The immense potential of the medical tourism industry is attributed to the top-notch hospitals and doctors that our country has to offer. Dr Gurushankar opines that availability of certified hospitals and infrastructure at a significantly low cost compared to western countries is what gives India an edge. India has close to 40 Joint commission international (JCI) accredited hospitals ,1400 hospitals accredited by National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH ) and 200 plus types of medical services.

Dr Vivek Desai, Founder and MD, HOSMAC mentions that premium hospitality services, shorter waiting periods and a host of ayurvedic treatments make India a favoured destination for international tourists. Diversity and versatility are they key factors that have fuelled the growth of the medical tourism industry.

“Cardiology procedures, oncology treatments, joint replacement surgeries, orthopaedic procedures, bone marrow transplants, eye surgeries and alternative therapies like Ayurveda and yoga are among the most sought-after medical services in India. Dental, orthopaedic, cardiology, ophthalmology, cosmetic, bariatric, organ transplant and rehabilitation procedures are also among the elective surgeries performed in India,” opines Dr Gurushankar.

Another very important reason for the growing traction of the medical tourism sector in India are our skilled and competent doctors, surgeons and nursing staff. The ubiquity of Indian nurses round the globe speak volumes of the level of expertise they possess.

Dr Sabine Kapasi, Co-Founder and MD, Enira Consulting opines, “Indian doctors possess a unique blend of expertise and approach that sets them apart on the global stage Indian doctors mostly resort to drugs rather than invasive procedures as their first line of treatment. This core value of the Indian doctors brings out their unwavering commitment towards better patient outcomes.”

Dr Sabine further opines, “Indian doctors benefit from early exposure to hands-on experience and the latest technologies, often at more affordable costs compared to other countries. This early immersion in quaternary care settings cultivates acute clinical understanding and diagnostic prowess, setting them apart even among their peers in developed nations.” She further expresses that the medical education system in India focuses on skills such as percussion a skill -based examination which is extremely important specially when diagnosing complex conditions.

“India stands out as medical experts are sought after by tourists from around the world, especially in a select few specialties including oncology, orthopaedics, neuro and spine surgeries, Transplants which also includes BMT and also Elective Surgery,”opines Abrarali Dalal, Director and CEO, Sahyadri Group of Hospitals, Pune.

Dental treatment, organ replacement and cosmetic surgery are few of the treatment types that are receiving increased footfall from patients from Cambodia, Myanmar, Maldives and Uzbekistan.

Affordability has often been a pain point and key factor as far as quality healthcare services are concerned and India trumps their other competitors in this regard. On an average an open heart surgery in the US costs around $1,50,000 while in India the same procedure costs as much as $3000.Patients across the border claim to save at least 50 per cent of their medical costs and this competitive pricing has been the reason behind the upsurge of this sector.

One of the other highlights of the Indian healthcare industry is that it is endowed with the best of  both worlds, possessing the expertise of both western medicine and eastern medicine practices.

“The core USP of the Indian healthcare segment lies in its blend of traditional wisdom and modern infrastructure,” opines Dr Ravishankar Polisetty, MD Physician Ordinatura General, Lap and Laser Surgery Senior Consultant, Avalon Consulting adds, “The rising popularity of traditional medicine systems (AYUSH), is fuelling the growth of India’s medical tourism.”

The upper hand that India has w.r.t medical tourism is our linguistic diversity. English ,a global language also happens to be India’s official language , which makes communication with foreign tourists effortless.

Hot-spots for medical value travel

Primarily the southern and western states are where medical tourism seems to have gained popularity. These states have a larger concentration of JCI accredited hospitals which naturally makes these regions a popular choice for international tourists. Cities like Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad are some of the favoured destinations for foreign tourists.

Chennai is deemed as the health capital of India as tourist flood the city for specialised surgeries , like hip replacements, cardiac bypass and bone marrow transplants.

Given that India has a whole bunch of Muslims patients from the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia, Halal medical tourism has caught up in India. Global Health city, Chennai has the first Halal friendly medical tourist hospital.

Economic implications

Medical value travel has been a shot in the arm for the Indian economy. Reports state that revenue from this sector will rise in the next 10 years to $43.5 billion. The industry that has charted a gross income of $7.4 billion in the last decade is expected to grow at CAGR of 21.2 per cent by 2027.This sunrise sector has indeed played a prominent role in boosting the Indian economy in the recent past.

The upward trajectory of this sector has been attributed to the phenomenal increase in the influx of foreign tourists, the numbers of which have spiralled upwards across the years, from 1.83 lakh in 2020 to 5.04 lakh in 2023 ( as of October).This influx of tourists has created scope for employment opportunities as well. To cater to the growing demands, there has been a cumulative increase in staff in the healthcare sector. Medical Value Tourism (MVT) has also helped to enhance foreign exchange, it has paved the way for the influx of forex which in turn exemplifies India’s soft power.

Role of PPPs

In recognition of the immense potential of this industry, the GoI has laid out a national strategy for the further emancipation and development of this sector. With the aim of attaining the goal of Atmanirbhar Bharat, the government has created a comprehensive blue print to bolster this promising sector. The government has worked on proactively promoting the sector through publicity materials and on international platforms like World Travel Mart and ITP Berlin. Cashing in on the traditional medicine narrative, brochures and CD’s on the body, mind and soul have been extensively circulated by the ministry of tourism. Due to the rate at which AYUSH treatments have been gaining popularity, the government has promoted this branch of medicine extensively through print and mass media campaigns.

The Heal in India, a remarkable initiative by the GoI has been aligned towards the philosophy of providing integrated and holistic healthcare services to cross – country travellers and patients at affordable pricing.

The introduction of the medical visas and e-visa has made MVT a seamless experience for tourists who can stay for 30 days at length. A slew of visa options like Medical visa, Medical escort visa ( MX) and visa on arrival have opened up multiple avenues for foreign tourist to visit the country.

Heal in India also has a host of services right from transferring medical records for treatment to even tele -medicine services that enable one to access professional advice from the confines of their smart phones without having to travel to hospitals.

The Incredible India website as part of the Incredible India campaign to promote India as a travel destination serves as a one stop portal that contains information pertaining to select Indian hospitals for medical tourism which has been prepared by the Indian health federation in affiliation with CII. The portal also has a list of accredited ayurveda and panchakarma centers,this repository of information gives a traveller the right amount of information and guidance.

The steady rise in the industry has propelled the government to take substantial steps towards bolstering the medical tourism landscape in India. In fact to strengthen the infrastructure the GOI has announced a loan of $ 14.8 billion.

Amidst all this the government has even focussed and been instrumental in helping the domestic tourism market to flourish. Under the Marketing Development assistance scheme (MDA) an initiative by the ministry of tourism, Financial Support a much as Rs 20,37,118 has been allocated towards development of the domestic medical tourism market.

Exploiting the power of PPP has advanced the progress of this sunrise sector. Collaborating with private players has increased footfall of patients specially from Africa and Gulf, which goes onto prove the efficacy of a robust PPP ecosystem. Medical value travel facilitators (MVTF) play a vital role, leading from the front, while dealing with end- end patient care when they travel to India. Platforms like GoMedii, Medi Assist, Magnus Medi and Pristyn care which are NABH accredited work on effectively liasoning with international tourists, streamlining their stay and creating cost -effective personalised treatment modules.

State governments of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra have partnered with private hospitals for luring foreign tourists for complex surgeries like knee and hip replacement, reproductive m surrogacy, cancer and dental treatments.

A slew of private hospitals in India provides premium medical facilities and treatment for foreign tourists. Apollo, Kokilaben, Wockhardt, Fortis Healthcare, Max Healthcare, CMC, Tata Memorial Hospital, AIIMS, provide first class care to patients from various developing countries like Bangladesh,Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Bhutan and Nepal and from developed countries like the UK, the US and Australia.

Hospitals like Apollo Group, Fortis and the Manipal group are expanding their outreach to tier II and III cities by establishing state of the art technology, transforming them into centres of excellence in healthcare services.

Hospitals like Apollo and Fortis have partnered with international medical and teaching facilities famous for their outstanding treatment services. While Apollo and Fortis have partnered with John Hopkins University, the Wockhardt Group of Hospitals has sought affiliation with Harvard Medical International. Collaboration with the best in the best for knowledge sharing and exchanges of key information on recent research and updates in the healthcare sector keeps Indian hospitals abreast with the rest in the field. Private players are also tying up tour operators like Thomas cook.

The flip side of medical tourism has primarily hinged on the private sector which has state of the art treatments and cutting-edge technology to its advantage. The stark divide and difference is unmistakable between private hospitals that offer world class facilities in comparison to the public sector with average facilities that mostly cater to the rural population. Like a popular adage goes all that glitters is not gold, while the publicity around MVT has focussed around ground breaking technologies and quality care there have been far reaching repercussions of this across the public sector healthcare. The private sector has been draining resources meant to be directed towards hospitals in rural areas, in terms of availability of healthcare professionals.

“Infrastructure development, particularly in rural areas, is crucial to cater to a broader spectrum of patients, ”opines Dr Gurushankar. The revenue and gains from this industry are being diverted towards the private sector,moreover lucrative pay packages attract HCP’s to private players, which has lead to a dearth of healthcare workers in rural areas.

Scope for improvement – An Industry Insider View

Envisioning India as a global hub for medical tourism and a healing centre for the world will require concerted and collaborative efforts of all stakeholders involved. Seeing India move up the ladder from No: 10 on the Global tourism index to No:1 will need substantial investments as well focus from the government.

Dhandapani says, “ Boosting global awareness of AYUSH Mark certified products is crucial.Stringent enforcement of quality control measures will bolster trust in the AYUSH ecosystem and, therefore, attract more foreign patients towards it.”

Dalal states that if India will have to rise and be recognised as a global medical tourism hub then implementation of a structured and supportive policy environment will be needed. He goes on to add a few points that if taken up in the future will benefit the sector, a transparent system that will guide tourist to hospitals and institutions which are centres of excellence and have a proven track record of better clinical outcomes.

India has grown as one of the major players in the medical tourism sector. The economic and social impact of this industry is far reaching.From employment opportunities to influx of forex, evolution of this sector has had a multiplier effect on various ancillary industries. Today medical tourism is looked upon as a form of trade that provides first class healthcare services and complex forms of surgery and treatment to developed countries at third world rates. Backed by a comprehensive supply-demand strategy and a robust marketing model , the Indian medical tourism is slated for exponential increase in the near future becoming a global destination for medical tourism.

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