The medical tourism landscape in India

Medical Tourism Industry -

July 14, 2020

With confidence that medical tourism will recoup even after COVID-19, Mohammed Farouk, AVP Strategy and Marketing and Head of International Business at Dr Rela Institute & Medical Centre, discusses how India approaches medical tourism before and during the pandemic. “Atithi Devo Bhava” is an Indian Hindu-Buddhist philosophy highlighted by the medical tourism industry in India. Part of the Indian culture, the Sanskrit phrase translates to “Guest is God”. Essentially, it is the underlying value promoted by the country as part of its Incredible India campaign and by Dr Rela Institute and Medical Centre (RIMC).

Receiving patients from all over the world, RIMC operates on the premise that quality but affordable healthcare should be accessible to all, and international patients are guests who need to be treated with reverence. Mohammed Farouk, AVP Strategy and Marketing at RIMC, attests that foreign tourists get this hassle-free experience first-hand, which adds to India’s attractiveness as a medical tourism destination in Asia.

RIMC promises international patients a “royal treatment” at the hospital as overseen by its International Patient Centre. Customer-centric services are given to foreign patients even before they travel to India. A pre-consultation with a designated physician is done prior to the patient’s visa application. Flight arrangements, airport transfers, visa application, and even accommodation are provided. RIMC has a four-star hotel inside the campus where patients can stay. The hospital also assists international patients with their insurance concerns and dietary requirements. It too employs language translators for better communication with patients, who travel mostly from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. All these services are in line with making patients “feel at home as much as possible” and experience “Atithi Devo Bhava”.

Apart from the excellent treatment experience, India’s medical tourism landscape is shaped by superior clinical outcomes and state-of-the-art healthcare facilities. With big investments in this sector, cutting-edge technologies have found their way to hospitals in India which make them on par with Western standards. Added to this is a highly credible and skilled team of medical professionals who attend to international patients.

Farouk mentions that patient feedback at RIMC highlight these factors as patients are inspired to share their hospital stories to friends and family.  Olena Milieieva, Baby Milana Milieieva’s mother, a family from Ukraine following Jehovah’s Witnesses (known for their religious stand on bloodless treatment) says: “We were looking for a fine hospital with high-qualified and educated doctors and great staff. Prof Rela and his staff are brilliant! They did impossible surgery without blood transfusion and it was done perfectly!”

Likewise, Mr UBG Jayantha Pushpa from Sri Lanka only has good things to say about RIMC: “I had liver transplantation at Dr Rela and I received awesome care from doctors. After my treatment, I feel like I’m 44 years old instead of 64.” RIMC is a multi-speciality quaternary care hospital whose patients usually come for tertiary and quaternary care. Farouk observes that most of RIMC’s international patients seek highly technical procedures, especially organ transplants, IVF, specialised orthopaedic surgeries, high-end neurosurgery, cardiac and gastro procedures, and even redo surgeries. For him, “people look at healthcare in India as a value proposition – high-quality healthcare with fantastic outcomes at an incredibly low cost”.

Medical tourists choose to come to India for these transplants and surgeries because treatments cost one-fifth to one-tenth of the same treatment when done in the US, and one-third of the cost when done in Singapore. To illustrate, a knee replacement surgery in the US can cost $40,000 and $13,000 in Singapore. When done in India, however, the same surgery costs $8,500.

Likewise, it is worth noting that the government has helped India’s medical tourism industry through the Incredible India campaign. The promotion of India’s ancient treatment practices or AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) has also lured medical and wellness tourists in. Additionally, the government’s introduction of the E-Visa has been a game-changer for the industry. With this new visa, it’s easier for international tourists from 166 countries to enter India through 25 designated airports.

Still, even though India has been poised to succeed in its medical tourism journey, the industry has inevitably suffered the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. About 20 percent of RIMC’s revenue is focused on medical tourism. Hence, when borders around the world closed, RIMC felt COVID-19’s impact. To soften the blow, RIMC reduced expenses and tried to manage operational costs better. Currently, RIMC is focused on preparation and reorganisation.

During the pandemic, RIMC decided to start treating COVID-19 patients. This was a difficult decision to make, being the country’s leading transplant hospital and nursing immunosuppressed patients. Multiple structural changes, segregating the hospital into COVID and non-COVID blocks, bringing in infection control protocols and training of medical and non-medical personal had to be done in record time. Farouk says that in the last couple of months, RIMC had performed over 30 transplants and treated more than 500 COVID-19 patients.

In addition, there are still various concerns about the medical tourism industry in India. For RIMC, a huge challenge is the number of daily flights in Chennai. Compared to Bangkok’s international airport that has about 250 flights every day, Chennai only has 25 flights daily making it difficult for patients to travel into the city. Patients would also opt for a flight without a major stopover or a longer travel time, Farouk says. Lastly, financial transactions in India need to be made easier to allow international patients a truly hassle-free experience.

The pandemic has significantly affected the healthcare industry and has deglobalised it. Nevertheless, Farouk believes that these limitations will not greatly affect the need of people to travel for medical treatments. Citing previous epidemics the world has suffered, Farouk foresees that there will be an influx of patients from all over the world, with chronic lifestyle diseases, waiting for the crisis to end so as to travel and get healed. If not for the pandemic, the medical tourism industry in India was forecast to pull in $9 billion this year.

When travel restrictions are more relaxed, there could be additional considerations for medical tourists, particularly COVID-19-related concerns such as safety protocols. Hence, it might take time to pick up the pace, but the medical tourism industry in India will definitely recoup.