That’s a $150bn opportunity India is squandering
While critics continue to carp about the seven star quality of India’s top hospitals, it is useful to keep in mind the huge opportunity this presents the country in terms of medical tourism—that is, patients coming in from overseas to get a bypass, a liver transplant. More so given it costs a tenth of what it costs in the US to get a bypass, for instance. The total addressable global health tourism market, according to the Apollo Group chairman Prathap Reddy, is around $150 billion, yet India gets barely a billion or so. As per data from Patients Beyond Borders, a guidebook for medical tourism, India got just 3.5 lakh medical tourists in 2012 as compared to 6.1 lakh in Singapore and 1.2 million in Thailand.
What is amazing is what is holding back this huge addressable opportunity. According to Reddy, India is not only producing top quality doctors, it even attracts doctors from overseas—his own hospital, he says, takes in a fraction of those that apply each year. The quality of nursing care is top class, as is evidenced by the number of nurses who regularly migrate to take advantage of higher overseas salaries. Turns out, India’s restrictive visa regime is one of the biggest inhibitors. Visa rules, for instance, rule out more than three visits in a year on a medical visa, automatically ruling out patients looking for oncology treatment or any other disease that requires patients to come in for regular follow-on treatment. There is then the issue of the police verification and trips to the police station required for both the patient as well as her attendants. While this is an irritant, a big irritant, for all visitors, in the case of those looking for medical treatment, it is a deal-breaker. In which case, the authorities need to look at different ways in which to resolve the issue. A police post at certain hospitals, with 24x7 CCTV access to the patients, for instance, could serve much the same purpose. If visa relaxations are what is required to make medical tourism happen, the sooner this is fixed, the better.