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Medical tourism in Mumbai improving, but foreign patients still face hurdles

With the flattening of the Covid-19 pandemic curve, medical tourism in Mumbai, considered the medical hub of India, is slowly recovering
By Rupsa Chakraborty, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JUL 10, 2021 11:11 PM IST

With the flattening of the Covid-19 pandemic curve, medical tourism in Mumbai, considered the medical hub of India, is slowly recovering. However, international patients are still facing hurdles to reach the city for life-saving surgeries due to the coronavirus restrictions across the globe.

Ousmane Komi, 54-year-old, a resident of Ivory Coast, with 15% heart-pumping capacity, landed in Mumbai on May 27. But the journey was a nightmare for the patient and his family members, who had to spend three days at the airports in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Dubai, due to continuous cancellations and delays of their flights, owing to Covid-19 restrictions.

“It took me three days to reach Mumbai as there was a lot of uncertainty about flights. Either the flights would get cancelled or delayed, while I was at the airport. The flight uncertainties were like life-and-death situations for me as every minute, my health was deteriorating. I had breathlessness and limb swelling and the chest showed bilateral significant pleural effusion (water on lungs),” he said.

If that wasn’t enough, when he landed in Mumbai, his Covid-19 report turned out positive. He believes because of his underlying health issues, he contracted the infection during his long halts at the crowded airports. Due to his complicated health issues, he was immediately referred to Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai Central for his treatment.

His treating doctor, Dr Ravi Gupta, consultant cardiologist from the hospital, said that he was diagnosed with severely decreased heart pumping ( LVEF 15%), while the normal pumping is 60%. He was managed in Covid-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and his heart check-ups showed 100% old and hard blockages in two out of three of his heart arteries. He was very breathless even at rest and used to develop fluid collection in his lungs repeatedly due to severe heart failure. The fluid was drained out multiple times.

“We had to perform two angioplasty procedures, which were extremely risky ,as his heart pumping rate was extremely low and his blood pressure was also low. However, his heart rate improved to 30%,” said Dr Gupta.

With well-connected international airports and skilled medical staffers at super-speciality hospitals, the city receives hundreds of foreign patients every year.

According to the FICCI – E&Y Report – “India: Building Best Practices in Healthcare Services Globally” released in 2019 on medical tourism, it is stated that almost 27% of medical tourists are recorded in Maharashtra.

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the footfall of international patients has fallen by 60% in the second wave. In April, when the city was witnessing the peak of the second, medical tourism almost came to a standstill.

“Due to the Covid-19, several international patients have put their surgeries on hold to avoid travelling in the pandemic,” said Dr Santosh Shetty, executive director at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital. In the past two months, the hospital has received about 50 international patients, most of whom have come from Uganda, Tanzania, Oman, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, Oman, USA, UK and Canada.

Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital in Powai has registered 11 foreign patients, mostly from Germany, UK, USA, South Korea, Belgium, Japan since May. They have 21 international patients from the Middle East and Africa who are waiting for their final approval to fly.

Talking about the hurdles international passengers are facing, Dr Sujit Chatterjee, chief executive officer (CEO) from the hospital, said, “There are several factors involved in the drop in medical tourism. Travel and visa restrictions are the main hurdles. Medical visas are issued only for elective and emergency cases only.”

Due to these restrictions, the hospitals often have to intervene to help in bringing the patients to the city as their medical visas are denied. In April, 2021, Nanavati Max Super Speciality Hospital had to coordinate with international embassies in China, Cameroon and Nigeria to bring a severely burnt patient to the city for treatment.

Peter Esomba, a Cameroon-based resident, sustained 50% deep burn injuries on his face and 80% on his scalp in a blast at a cocoa factory. However, due to incessant local civil wars and scarce medical services, Peter couldn’t access quality healthcare for over five months. Later, he approached the hospital for his plastic surgery. However, loss of facial identification marks through extensive facial burns and scarring meant Peter failed to procure his passport. Then the hospital intervened to expedite his passport generation.

Peter’s second roadblock was to procure a medical visa for India. Commonly, Cameroon residents approach the Indian embassy in Nigeria for travel or medical Indian visa. The border between Cameroon and Nigeria was shut owing to the pandemic and Peter couldn’t travel to complete visa formalities. “We appealed to the Hon’ble Indian High Commissioner in Cameroon and requested his support on compassionate grounds to bring him to the hospital for his essential treatment,” Dr Parag Vibhakar, consultant plastic and cosmetic surgeon from the hospital.

It took them almost a month of struggle through documentation to reach Mumbai in May.

The doctors managed his facial wounds through skin grafting. Then they treated his skull wounds and restructured the left eye and lips. In following visits of the patient, the team will perform complicated procedures such as corneal transplant and improve the nasal structure through skin grafting.

“After long spells of hardship, I reached the hospital. For my other surgeries, I would have to fly again. But I am hopeful that I will be able to fight against the hurdles again,” Esomba said.

The return flight of Komi, which was scheduled on June 25, has been cancelled. Now, he has booked his new tickets for July 23.

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