India’s healing touch – Life News


Just figure this out. Foreign travel to India for medical purposes saw a 66% rise in 2021 despite the Covid-19 pandemic. As per information provided by the Union ministry of tourism, in 2020, 183,000 tourists came to the country for medical treatment. The number went up to 304,000 in 2021, and over 1.4 million medical tourists visited India in 2022.

Also, India was ranked 10th in the Medical Tourism Index (MTI) for 2020-2021 (out of 46 destinations in the world) by the Medical Tourism Association, a global non-profit association for the medical tourism and international patient industry. Thailand, Mexico, US, Singapore, Brazil, Turkey and Taiwan are the top destinations in terms of the number of patients for medical value travel, the tourism ministry adds.

The growing numbers are a testament to the progress of India in the global healthcare ecosystem, with the country rightly positioning itself as a preferred destination for medical value travel (MVT), or medical tourism, for modern as well as traditional treatments and rejuvenation.

India remains the world’s most affordable destination for world-class healthcare, says Anas Abdul Wajid, senior director and chief sales and marketing officer, Max Healthcare, which caters to patients from countries such as Iraq, Uzbekistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Fiji and Kyrgyzstan. “We have the finest clinicians, latest medical equipment (including state-of-the-art robotics), efficiently-run hospitals and the Indian culture of hospitality and warmth towards guests,” he says, adding: “Indian hospitals are regarded all over the world for their clinical expertise and efficient operations, but at a fraction of the cost incurred in developed markets such as the US, Europe, Turkey, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea.”

Seema Vig, facility director, Paras Health, Gurugram, agrees. “India has emerged as a cost-effective nation for treatments compared to many Western countries without compromising on quality, and provides a wide range of medical treatments and procedures, including but not limited to cardiac surgeries, organ transplants, orthopedic procedures, cosmetic surgeries and cancer treatments. In fact, patients often combine their medical travel with tourism due to India’s rich cultural heritage and tourist attractions, offering a holistic experience during their recovery period,” she adds.

While one of the biggest advantages is the effective cost of medical treatment, the other is accessibility, says Jyoti Mayal, president, Travel Agents’ Association of India (TAAI) and vice chairperson, Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH). “Unlike many other international destinations, patients do not have to wait for months to get an appointment in India. Moreover, Indian doctors are known to be committed and provide much more personalised care. Some of the major Indian cities attracting medical tourists include Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Nagpur, Kochi, Pune and Nashik,” she adds.

So, what are the treatments that patients normally come for? At Max, for instance, patients look for high-end tertiary care needs like oncology, transplants (bone marrow, liver and kidney), cardiac interventions and surgeries including pediatric cardiac surgeries, neuro and spine surgeries, orthopaedics and various minimally-invasive GI surgeries. For instance, last year, doctors at Max Super Speciality Hospital in Vaishali, Ghaziabad, successfully performed a rare, two-way swap liver transplant involving two patients and their two donors from different cities in Uzbekistan.

Similarly, Fortis Healthcare has patients coming from the Middle-East, Africa, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, Asia and the Pacific, which include Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Mongolia, Myanmar, China, Indonesia, Japan and Fiji.

As per Anil Vinayak, group COO, Fortis Healthcare, “patients from these countries come majorly for the globally renowned clinical teams and cutting-edge medical technology”. There’s a complete spectrum of diagnostic and therapeutic technology and top-end machines that include three Tesla Digital MRI scanners, a stem cell laboratory and a ‘CT Brain Suite’, among others, at Fortis. “We are introducing the MR linear accelerator and gamma knife machine in May, adding to the gamut of sophisticated equipment for cancer treatment,” says Vinayak, who has seen 20% growth in terms of patients over the years for medical travel within the group.

Gamma knife is an advanced radiation treatment with small- to medium-sized brain tumours, abnormal blood vessel formations, epilepsy, trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve condition that causes chronic pain and other neurological conditions. It causes little or no damage to surrounding tissue; patients with serious disorders can be treated with non-invasive procedures in one day without any overnight hospital stay.

Offering support, right from inquiry to visa assistance and accommodation for patients, Manipal Hospitals has a network of more than 28 hospitals across over 15 cities in India. It offers service with video consultations for international patients with a complete treatment plan before travelling. Apart from robotics and AI in surgeries to deliver quality and personalised healthcare, the hospital has incorporated advanced digital solutions to monitor patient progress and empower ‘continuity of care post-high-risk surgeries’.

“For remote care capabilities, we collaborated with Fujifilm India to provide digitised solutions for patient diagnosis. This AI-enabled picture archiving and communication system (PACS) eliminates the need for manually storing, retrieving and sending sensitive information, films and reports, which help us create a comprehensive treatment plan. It is scalable to more clinical specialities and covers three million studies per year currently,” says Karthik Rajagopal, chief operating officer of Manipal Hospitals, which has seen medical travel increase by 30-40% post Covid.

India offers numerous advantages to health seekers, which include high-quality, trained and competent doctors, empathetic nursing staff, English-speaking personnel and population, says Dr Santosh Shetty, CEO and executive director at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai. “The hospital receives many patients from Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Uganda), Middle-East (UAE, Oman, Qatar, Iraq, Yemen) and SAARC countries (Bangladesh, Nepal), in addition to non-insured patients coming for dental treatments and cosmetic surgeries from developed countries such as the US and the UK,” he adds. The treatments for which they come include oncology, neurosurgery, paediatric cardiac surgery, high-end orthopaedics, organ transplants and rehabilitation services.

Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital has already invested in surgical robots, orthopaedic robots, rehab robotics, latest radiation oncology equipment, biplane cath lab, digital PET CT and total lab automation—technologies for both diagnostics and treatment, which are a big draw for medical tourists.

A dynamic health hub

Another USP of India as a global medical tourism hub is the availability of therapies based on traditional medicine—in particular, ayurveda, yoga and unani. This is besides the vibrant landscape of wellness and rejuvenation that the country provides to medical tourists.

Last year, the government rolled out the Ayush e-visa for international patients who prefer destinations in India for health, spiritual and yoga retreats. “India is home to the world’s oldest medical systems, ayurveda. With its unique strengths coming to the fore, demand for ayush treatments like ayurveda, yoga, siddha, unani and homeopathy has increased across the world and the same is also promoted,” Mansukh Mandaviya, minister of health and family welfare, said at the 76th World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Understanding the impact on healthcare systems across the world, the minister stated that “the pandemic has demonstrated that health threats are not confined to national borders and requires a coordinated global response. It is in this context that India has been supporting in terms of capacity building of healthcare workers, coupled with harnessing digital technology as the way forward”.

As per Vaidya Manoj Nesari, advisor (ayurveda), ministry of Ayush, India is among top 10 countries for medical tourism and among top five in wellness tourism. “The sizable number of hospitals in different cities spanning the entire southern and western parts of the country has achieved JCI (Joint Commission International) accreditation, thereby generating trust in the international community about the quality and safety of services provided,” he adds. JCI is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that identifies, measures and shares best practices in quality and patient safety around the world.

Nesari further explains that India has a large pool of qualified doctors including around 1.3 million allopathy doctors, 0.4 million ayurveda doctors and 0.3 million homeopathy, unani, siddha and sowa rigpa doctors. “India boasts world-class medical facilities equipped with advanced technologies, highly skilled professionals, a comprehensive range of medical services, ranging from specialised surgeries like cardiac surgery and organ transplantation to cosmetic and dental procedures, providing patients with virtually every medical need. The ayush system also addresses physical, mental and spiritual well-being, making them attractive to medical tourists seeking comprehensive care,” says Nesari, adding that people from the US, UK, Middle-Eastern countries, European nations, Asian countries and Australia visit India for Ayush treatments.

India has a unique aspect in medical tourism—alternative treatments, says Mayal of TAAI and FAITH. “India has invested heavily in Ayush attracting medical value travellers. We encourage our members to explore niche markets such as medical tourism and give them all the support they require to connect and transact business,” she adds.

So, which are the places that are sought after? According to Nishant Pitti, CEO and co-founder of online travel company EaseMyTrip, Alleppey is known for its ayurvedic treatments and holistic healthcare system. “People visit the city for unique treatments for ailments in the form of experiences and massages,” he says. Chennai is also one of the cost-effective places to avail world-class healthcare. “The high standards of hospitals and reasonable costs make the city a viable medical tourism destination. Mumbai is another place that boasts global quality treatment facilities, superspeciality hospitals and research and diagnostic hubs. Additionally, Coimbatore, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Goa, Hyderabad and Vellore are other prominent medical tourism destinations in the country,” he adds.

Highly-skilled manpower, specialised medical professionals, robust infrastructure, pharmaceutical development, cost competitiveness and the increasing popularity of the healing practices with the Ayush approach are major factors that give India an edge over other medical tourism destinations, adds Pitti.

Meanwhile, India is also emerging as a favourable destination to conduct clinical trials with a large and diverse patient pool, streamlined regulatory processes and a highly skilled workforce. This also presents a significant opportunity for private biopharma companies to leverage the country’s rich diversity and robust healthcare infrastructure to conduct efficient and cost-effective clinical trials.

A joint report by PwC India and the US-India Chamber of Commerce (USAIC) titled, ‘Clinical Trial opportunities in India’, indicates that the clinical trial activity in India has been increasing steadily since 2014 due to key regulatory reforms aimed towards global harmonisation, enabling open access to clinical trials in India. “This is an opportunity for top biopharma companies to develop a long-term strategy that focuses on the key enablers of innovation and strategic partnerships in India,” says Sujay Shetty, partner and global health industries leader, PwC.

Going ahead

With MVT, Wajid of Max Healthcare expects more patients to travel to India for their healthcare needs as “we improve our clinical services and patient services and ease of travel to India and within India”. The hospital saw international patient revenue grow by 43%. In Q4 FY23, the share of international patient revenues stood at 9.1% of the total revenue. The hospital has also created fixed packages for 25 most common treatment procedures/ surgeries to address a major concern of international patients—the uncertainty regarding the escalation of bills. With fixed packages, patients have to pay only the package price even if they need to stay in the hospital longer following an unexpected complication.

“For non-packaged surgeries, the hospital team offers a firm estimate at the time of admission, which is usually +/-10% of the bill. We are already offering robotic surgeries to our international patients. Currently, we have 17 robotic systems in the network. Robotic surgeries are more precise, have fewer complications, have less blood loss and reduce the patient’s stay in the hospital,” says Wajid.

Going ahead, the medical tourism industry is going to be highly competitive, and healthcare providers must constantly innovate to stay ahead of their competitors, says a spokesperson of Apollo Hospitals Group. “Over the years, we have invested in several innovative technologies and services that have been introduced in the medical value industry, such as telemedicine, virtual consultations, personalised treatment plans and medical concierge services. These have improved the accessibility and quality of medical care for medical tourists, making it easier for them to receive treatment in India and access quality healthcare services at an affordable cost,” the spokesperson adds.

The hospital has given medical assistance to almost 200,000 patients coming from different parts of the globe, including Bangladesh, Oman, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Mauritius, Pacific Islands, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.

Meanwhile, Max is working closely with foreign partner hospitals, healthcare travel operators, international insurance companies and NGOs who fund healthcare in their countries and ministries of health and other government departments. Max Healthcare has expanded its direct presence in eight countries—Kenya (Nairobi), Nigeria (Lagos), United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Oman (Muscat), Myanmar, Ethiopia (Addis Ababa), Uzbekistan (Tashkent) and Nepal (Kathmandu). This is in addition to the indirect presence in six countries through nine partner offices (three in Iraq, two in Yemen and one each in Fiji, Cameroon, Mongolia and Georgia). The Nairobi office continued its focus on promoting tertiary care highly complex procedures of bone marrow transplants, liver transplants and paediatric cardiac surgeries and oncology treatments. The Dubai office has completed one year and has been able to make a mark for itself in the UAE.

“These have been set up with a view to explore MVT related opportunities in these regions. Additionally, we also have 10 partner offices in countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Cameroon, Mongolia, Georgia and Cambodia,” adds Wajid.



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