Harnessing the True Potential of India’s Medical Tourism Industry

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India is fast emerging as an attractive destination for medical value travellers from across the globe. The drivers of medical tourism in India include a substantially lower cost of treatment, short waiting times and delivery of high-quality services. A cardiovascular surgery in the country can cost as little as Rs. 4-5 lakh compared to Rs. 80 lakhs in the U.S. Similarly, the waiting time for a knee graft operation in India could be as short as five days compared to nearly 18 months in the U. K’s National Health Service.

The number of medical visitors to India has been increasing steadily, up from 1,84,298 in 2014 to 3,61,060 in 2016. Future projections also seem promising, with the industry expected to touch $9 billion by 2020.

Some key challenges, however, persist. While the government has taken several progressive steps concerning medical visas, more can be done to ease the travel of medical tourists to India. Additionally, the market continues to be largely unregulated, with several informal agents and intermediaries connecting prospective patients to health facilities. Domestic or international accreditation has been acquired by a relatively small number of health facilities, primarily hospitals.

Most importantly perhaps, there is considerable lack of awareness in target markets about India’s capabilities, infrastructure and cost advantage in the health and wellness space. In many countries, there are misconceptions about India’s traditional systems of medicine such as Yoga and Ayurveda which are often perceived to be exclusive to Indian culture or even related to religion, instead of means for promoting healthy living. This is perhaps why India currently accounts for only 2% of the global wellness market.

The Way Forward

While a comprehensive medical tourism policy is in the works, some concrete and implementable measures in the short-term can go a long way in helping India realise its full potential in medical tourism.

First, it may be worthwhile to revisit some of the medical visa norms. For instance, the process of registering at the Foreigner Regional Registration Offices could be made easier for patients by setting up helpdesks at major airports and hospitals across the country. The procedure for visitors who come on a tourist visa to switch to a medical visa should also be streamlined. Further, medical visa on arrival could be piloted for patients from countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, UAE, UK, UK and Canada.

Second, the need for and importance of acquiring an accreditation should be widely publicised among all types of health and wellness providers, including dental clinics, Ayurveda and Yoga centres as well as medical tourism companies. As per the Joint Commission International (JCI) website, 36 Indian providers have been accredited by JCI compared to 61 in Thailand. A JCI accreditation is considered to be the gold standard in global health care.

Third, to enable better regulation of the market, a system should be put in place for registering agents and intermediaries. They should also be accredited according to the framework developed by the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers and listed on all websites about medical tourism.

Fourth, for promoting India as a medical and wellness tourism destination, intensive awareness campaigns should be undertaken in high potential markets (e.g. South-East Asia for medical treatments, USA and UK for wellness tourism), in addition to traditionally lucrative markets (e.g. SAARC, Middle East and Africa).

The launch of the India Healthcare Tourism website by the government is an important step. There is an opportunity to make the website even more comprehensive by adding information on local travel and accommodation. The website also needs to be actively promoted through social media channels, in partnership with domestic and international medical tourism companies as well as leading hospital chains. By learning from the experiences of countries like Malaysia and Thailand, a welcome lounge could be set up at airports where large numbers of medical tourists land as well as a dedicated call centre for international patients.

The National Medical & Wellness Tourism Promotion Board can serve as the anchor point for the implementation of these measures. In the longer term, state-level boards should also be established to align with the board at the national level.

The time is ripe to inject greater vitality into India’s already strong medical tourism industry and overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of the country becoming a global leader in the space.


(Disclaimer:
The author of this article is Urvashi Prasad, who is a Public Policy Specialist in the Office of the Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog, the Indian Government’s Premier Think Tank. The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. )
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