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In support of medical tourism

Simplifying the visa regime will be a big help. Why can’t short-term medical treatment be allowed for those with tourist visas?

Indian doctors have performed hundreds of life-saving surgeries on little children from neighbouring nations over the last decade. Thousands of others have benefited from medical interventions at Indian hospitals for ailments at a fraction of the cost they would have incurred in a hospital in more advanced nations. Indian doctors and nurses have over the years proved they are among the best caregivers in the world.

Every year, hundreds of medical and nursing graduates leave India to pursue a career overseas, among them many who would have stayed on if there were more opportunities. Creating those opportunities is not very difficult if the governments at the Centre and States were to work in close cooperation with the healthcare industry to identify and address problem areas with the right policy measures.

Big demand, big difference

Even with the existing infrastructure, more than 200,000 tourists come to India annually for medical care, including complicated surgeries. People are also looking beyond conventional, allopathic-led treatment, in particular traditional medicine such as ayurveda.

Given India’s potential to provide both modern and traditional treatment in world-class settings at affordable costs, the value of medical tourism in India was estimated to rise to about $7-8 billion by 2020 from about $3 billion currently, according to a white paper by CII and consulting firm Grant Thornton India. Some estimates are that savings in India compared to the cost of certain procedures in the US is about 65 to 90 per cent. For instance, a heart bypass surgery that costs about $130,000 in the US, will cost about $7,000 in India.

India has the wherewithal to consolidate its position as a popular medical care destination, not just for those looking for value treatment but also for those with the ability to spend. Consider some of the statistics. India has 1.2 million doctors registered with the Medical Council of India and another 0.8 million doctors practising traditional medicine such as ayurveda, unani, siddha and homoeopathy. We have 0.17 million dental surgeons. There are nearly two million registered nurses and midwives and nearly a million auxiliary nurses and midwives.

A key factor

A key concern faced by those seeking medical value tourism is visas. Our current medical visa regime has to be simplified; short-term medical treatments should be permitted even with tourist category visas. For complex treatments, multiple entry or longer stay may be required. We should also consider the new e-visa regime to have options for short-term medical treatments. With almost 5 to 6 million tourists coming to India, a simplified visa system would would have a multiplier effect on forex earnings.

The creation of healthcare infrastructure to attract overseas patients needs to be supported with fiscal measures. While seeking tax exemptions may seem out of place when the government wants to phase out all exemption and lower the corporate tax rate to 25 per cent, the finance ministry should weigh in the gains from upgrading healthcare infrastructure not just for Indian residents and foreigners, but also for the economy. More hospitals to take care of more patients will mean more jobs for qualified medical professionals as well as other support staff.

The government should also consider encouraging the creation of special economic zones for healthcare — complete with hospitals, hotels and leisure and fitness activities. The lack of affordable and good quality hotels is a deterrent for many who are keen to come to India for treatment.

In the next two decades, medical tourism can do for India what the software industry has done in the last 25 years. Hospitals and other healthcare service providers will need to be supported the way startups are. Upgrading India’s healthcare infrastructure will also help improve delivery of healthcare services within the country — no hospital will be 100 per cent dependent on overseas patients and so all the facilities will be accessed by citizens too. It need not be elitist. In return for concessions from the government, hospitals could commit to providing free or concessional services to the poor and thus contribute to the objective of health for all.

The writer is the executive vice-chairperson of Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited.

This article appeared in The Hindu Business Line on 23rd February, 2016.