Medical tourism companies turn to telemedicine in wake of Covid-19
Gurugram: In a bid to restart the flow of revenue, cash-strapped medical tourism (or ‘medical value travel’) companies in Gurugram and the National Capital Region (NCR) have turned their attention to telemedicine services, with some having already begun telephonic consultations with patients in west Asia, Uzbekistan and Myanmar.
Telemedicine refers to the delivery and facilitation of health and health-related services including medical care, provider and patient education, health information services and self-care, via telecom and digital communication technologies, a practice that has gained significance globally over the past few years with advances in technology.
On March 25, India issued the first central guidelines on telemedicine, which were gazette notified on May 16. While these guidelines are intended for telemedicine being practised within India, medical tourism companies are now using telemedicine services to retain patients living overseas, who are no longer able to travel to India to seek treatment.
Gurugram, according to MVT [medical value travel] company owners, is India’s largest medical tourism hub, where close to 50% of NCR’s medical tourists seek treatment. With business dependent on international travel, and with no new patients expected to arrive in the country anytime soon, industry owners say telemedicine is their next best option to keep business afloat.
Vinay Aggarwal, proprietor of Shinon Collaborative Consultancy, an MVT firm operating in Gurugram, said, “MVT companies that have offices overseas have already started interacting with governments in other countries, seeking permission to start telemedicine services. So far we have been able to roll out these services to our clients in Myanmar and Uzbekistan, after getting our doctors accredited with Myanmar Medical Council and the Uzbeki health ministry.”
Amit Sharma, founder and CEO of eEXpedise Healthcare, another MVT company operating in Gurugram, said they have initiated such services in Dubai, with doctors who are accredited by the Dubai Health Authority. “But it has been a slow process. Speaking to departments in other countries, getting their permissions in order, it all takes time. But we see a huge demand for telehealth services in west Asian and African countries, which is where our focus is now shifting,” Sharma said.
FISCAL STIMULUS TO PROVIDE MUCH-NEEDED LIQUIDITY
In the days immediately after the lockdown, MVT proprietors were sceptical of reviving the industry without a dedicated bailout package. “However, a few positive developments have happened since then,” according to Sharma.
Sharma explained that under the fiscal stimulus package announced by the Centre, MVT companies will be able to avail of the same benefits as other micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), such as those involved in manufacturing. “The service sector, which medical tourism is a part of, will also be allowed to avail of distress and non-collateral loans. This will be a major liquidity lifeline for us while we adapt our businesses to the constraints of Covid-19,” he said.
A senior director at the Federation of Indian Chambers of and Industry (Ficci), who is directly overseeing the Indian MVT sector (which is valued at between US$5 and 6 billion), said, “We are making a representation on Monday to the ministries of finance and ministry of commerce and industry to recognise MVT as an independent MSME industry. Companies are still straddled with the cost of wages, office space and so on. Until newer revenue models are established, MVT should be allowed the same benefits as the manufacturing sector, seeing as it brings in a substantial amount of foreign exchange in the country.”
The Ficci official, seeking anonymity, also concurred that telemedicine could be a viable business model for MVT companies during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Preliminary consultations and even post-operative care, to an extent, can be carried out over the phone for overseas patients. It is necessary to assist these enterprises in making the shift to telehealth services,” he said.