India’s healing power
Medical tourism in India was a recent topic of a PHD Chamber of Commerce conference. The chamber and Yes Bank produced a report on the industry and various speakers held forth on the issue.
While I had a basic knowledge of the topic, but was suitably surprised at how intangible data on medical tourism in India was: only the roughest estimates of how many medical tourists come to India, how much money is made from it and a largely ad hoc procedure in handling this potentially lucrative traffic.
From a purely foreign policy perspective, medical tourism and Indian healthcare in general is a big boost to India’s standing overseas — especially in countries in its immediate neighbourhood and other parts of the developing world.
A Rwandan diplomat said there were jokes in his country about a person who got his teeth to shine like a light and was told “you must have had an Indian dentist”. An Afghan official said that while no one actually knew, he believed about 500 Afghans a day came to India largely for medical treatment. The Nigerian ambassador spoke of estimates in his country of some $ 100 million or so being spent by medical tourists from his country in India every year.
But the complaints as to how the medical tourism industry functions in India are also numerous — and seriously undermine much of the goodwill that is earned. The industry is littered with conmen, touts, extortionist middlemen and medical malpractice. A sick foreigner of limited means in a strange land is about as vulnerable as they come.
As always happens, the odd horror story gets magnified, distorted and develops the contours of urban mythology. The African and Afghan officials admitted that many of their citizens who come to India fall prey to touts from their own countries.
The Nigerian envoy spoke of a citizen who came to India for a treatment she was told would cost her less than Rs 100,000 but watched the bill escalate to something like seven times that amount. A member of the Indian medical tourism industry later explained that she had been misdiagnosed in Nigeria with fibroids but was found, in India, to have uterine cancer — medically several quantum levels apart in severity. The point, however, was that this lady’s story has become part of the “corrupt India” mythology in Africa.
What is missing? The answer is some sort of centralised authority to handle the promotion, regulation and so on of medical tourism in India.
At present, much of the business is driven by word-of-mouth or middlemen. Bangladeshis come to India for medical treatment in droves. About 15 to 20% of medical tourists in India are from Pakistan. But they generally fare well here because they are recommended to individual Indian institutions and doctors that they have come to know about through personal networks. Bangladeshis hold up a large chunk of Calcutta’s private hospital system, for example.
Other countries in this business, notably Thailand, Malaysia and, a recent entrant. Turkey, have medical tourism authorities who help coordinate the various business involved — airlines, hospitals, etc – as well as carry out advertising, certification and provide redressal to unhappy clients.
Incidentally, a foreign medical tourist in India has the right to complain to a cell of the Medical Council of India. But this is a little-known fact. An Indian official mentioned it at the panel I moderated at the PHD Chamber event. A number of the foreign diplomats present admitted no one had ever told them such a complaints body existed.
Many will argue given the shaky state of India’s healthcare system, medical tourism makes little sense. A large chunk of this tourism is in the fields of alternative medicine so is “medical” only in the widest definition of the word.
But the best response is really to see it in economic terms. Healthcare, like any service, is limited by a lack of resources. Nothing generates resources like a profit-making corporate-driven economic sector. In other words, a multi-billionaire medical tourism industry can easily generate revenues and demand that would help India to expand its healthcare capacities across the board.