A healthcare worker fills a syringe with a dose of Bharat Biotech's COVID-19 vaccine called COVAXIN, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination campaign at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital in New Delhi, India, January 16, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi(REUTERS)
A healthcare worker fills a syringe with a dose of Bharat Biotech's COVID-19 vaccine called COVAXIN, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination campaign at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital in New Delhi, India, January 16, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi(REUTERS)

Medical tourism to India on the up as Covid impact ebbs

Most of these patients are lined up to undergo organ transplants, and had been waiting for months for travel restrictions due to the pandemic to ease as transplant surgeries are not widely done in their country.
By Rhythma Kaul, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 07, 2021 02:21 AM IST

Twenty-one end-stage kidney, liver and heart patients from Myanmar arrived at New Delhi’s Apollo Hospital on Friday in a chartered flight arranged by the hospital, as medical tourism that was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic has started picking up again.

Most of these patients are lined up to undergo organ transplants, and had been waiting for months for travel restrictions due to the pandemic to ease as transplant surgeries are not widely done in their country.

“With initial lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed worldwide due to Covid-19, the condition of these patients had deteriorated to such an extent that a transplant was the only way out. These patients were chronic cases of kidney, liver and cardiovascular diseases and have been waiting for organ transplants for over six months now,” the hospital said in a statement.

“Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals along with the Indian embassy has arranged for a special chartered flight to get these patients to India for immediate kidney/liver transplants and expedite treatment for patients requiring attention for cardiovascular ailments,” it added.

The ministry of external affairs (MEA), government of India, did not officially comment on the arrival of these patients; however, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that special permission was given for airlifting the 21 ill persons on humanitarian grounds.

Medical tourism in India had been steadily growing over the past few years. The government data for 2019 and 2018 showed at least 6% of the overall tourist flow to India was of people arriving for treatment. Foreign tourist arrivals for medical reasons in 2019 were 697,453 — 6.4% of the total; for 2018, the number was 644,036, 6.1% of the total tourist inflow.

While the ministry of tourism is yet to make public data on international patients who arrived for treatment to India in 2020, most hospitals that had 10-15% of their patient rush from overseas said they did not see the usual rush of international patients last year because of the pandemic.

“The percentage of international patients dropped substantially last year; it is picking up this year but very gradually. The normal rush is still not there. In our hospital we would see about 10-15% foreign patients annually, which is now as low as 2-3%, but patients have started coming in,” said Dr Yatin Mehta, chairman, Institute of Critical Care & Anesthesiology, Medanta hospital.

Also, patients who travel to India for treatment currently are largely those needing critical care.

“These are all patients suffering from chronic conditions that can be life-threatening such as organ failure, cancers or brain tumor. For the initial few months there were absolutely no patients from the overseas. By July critical patients started trickling in. Travel for elective procedures such as putting orthpaedic implants, etc, however, has vanished completely,” said Dr Sibal.

Dr Mehta says, “Also, no patients are coming from countries that are called bubble safe such as the UK or the US. Most patients are from Asian or African countries. It will take some time before things actually get back to normal. After all, not everyone can afford to charter a flight.”

Apollo Hospital has an information centre at Yangon, Myanmar, and on the request of patients, a special flight was arranged to fly them to India.

“The Indian mission in Myanmar was of great help in transporting these patients. They had been waiting for a while, some even for over six months, to get treated. These are all critically ill patients who were on regular follow-up but couldn’t travel for treatment. We tried to treat them optimally through virtual consultations, but now they needed surgery,” said Dr Anupam Sibal, group medical director, Apollo Hospitals.

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