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A leader in medical tourism, almost

Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai are major hubs for surgical procedures, report Anjali Doshi and BR Srikanth.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2006 20:10 IST

After living with pain for nearly 15 years, Russell Cole, 62, travelled from California to Mumbai last November to have three joints operated — knees and right hip — at the L H Hiranandani Hospital. Cole, who suffered from severe arthritis, paid Rs 6 lakh for the surgeries that would have cost him over Rs 25 lakh in the States.

Three weeks later, he was back on his feet and on the way home. “I would definitely recommend India to my friends who have been putting off orthopaedic surgeries for years because they can’t afford it,” Cole said.

George Marshal, a retired policeman, underwent an angiography in the UK. But when he was put on an eight-month waiting list for surgery, Marshal decided to get his operation done at Wockhardt Hospital, Bangalore. The operation was conducted last year and he is doing well.

In 2005, an estimated 1,75,000 patients travelled to India for medical care. Thailand and Singapore are other popular medical tourism haunts.

“That number is growing by 30-35 per cent every year,” says Vishal Bali, CEO, Wockhardt Group of Hospitals. Wockhardt gets roughly 900 overseas patients every year at its Mumbai and Bangalore facilities.

Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, in that order, are the major hubs for standard surgical procedures, comprising about 70 per cent of the total medical tourism revenue. South India, Kerala in particular, gets top billing among those looking for alternative therapies, such as Ayurveda, that make up the rest of the revenue pie.

From an excruciatingly long wait for diagnostic and surgical procedures in some countries to skyrocketing medical costs elsewhere, the reasons why India is attracting overseas patients in the thousands are many.

Americans come here because of mounting medical costs and high insurance premiums back home. In 2005, 46.6 million Americans had no medical insurance and 120 million were without dental insurance, according to the Census Bureau.

Patients from Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh are other countries that favour India due to cost-effective treatment in state-of-the-art hospitals.

The demand-supply gap is the reason many Canadians and British seek medicare in India. The UK’s National Health Service and Health Canada provide medical care at highly subsidised rates but it often takes upto six months just to get an MRI scan.

It also helps that the costs here are one-fifth, sometimes even one-tenth, of the expenses incurred in the US and UK. A heart surgery that costs about Rs 14,00,000 in the US will take about Rs 2,50,000 in India. The most sought-after procedures are cardiac, orthopaedic, spinal, cosmetic and dental surgeries.

Many Indian hospitals like the Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai, have applied for the Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation — a gold standard in global healthcare standards. Only five hospitals, including Wockhardt in Mumbai and Apollo in Delhi, have JCI accreditation.

According to a 2004 CII report, India has the potential to attract a million tourists every year that would contribute roughly Rs 23,000 crore to the Indian economy.

But while India strives to emulate the success of Thailand and Singapore, there are a number of drawbacks to consider: overall hygiene levels in India, poor infrastructure at airports and a bureaucratic approach to issuing visas.

As till the time these issues are addressed, we remain a few steps away from being the leader in medical tourism.

First Published: Oct 19, 2006 03:56 IST