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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Medical Tourism in India

At Singapore, we have been seeing advertisements as part of the Incredible India campaign that promotes India as a destination for medical tourism. The ad shows a happy Caucasian couple: the husband says he got a knee surgery done at one fourth the cost while his wife managed to have a good time. The ad goes on to show Caucasian patients in swanky facilities, cared for by committed looking doctors, Naresh Trehan, lush green lawns and ten the final punchline “Incredible India”. The hidden message seemed to be “We accept the farts and burps of the developed world with a smile”. The natural reaction of an Indian or an aware foreigner would be to ask why promote medical tourism when probably most Indians (87% of whom earn less than $1.4 a day) have to do without half-decent healthcare?

But such a reaction is not entirely justified. The level of Indian healthcare is quite good among developing countries (as % of GDP spending, healthcare spending is 6%; for developed world the ratios is 10-15%). Only Cuba may have better standards of healthcare. Drug prices and availability are amongst the cheapest in the world. And despite recent Ayurvedic claims as the miracle-cure-all; fact is life expectancy in India is now 65 years, up from 32 years during Ayurvedic years (till 1930s). Many diseases like leprosy and polio are on the verge of becoming history. However, more than 70% of healthcare spending is not funded by the government or insurance agencies; the reverse applies for most developed economies (NHS in UK almost funds all of healthcare expense in UK). Also drug prices and prices for healthcare services in India have been increasing at a rate much faster than CPI inflation.

And that is why medical tourism is a difficult issue. As happens in laissez faire systems, it means that the best care would go to those who are willing to pay most: in this case, people from developed worlds; rather than the native population (70% of which probably live in villages). Of course, number of such medical tourists are relatively insignificant, but given India’s size, the number of high end resources are also far and few. There is another dimension: medical tourism is rarely used in cases of critical diseases or for situations where people in developed economies can claim for insurance; so any short term stress on local resources is only likely in not-so-acute areas like cosmetics, minor surgeries, sex changes etc. But will in the long term brightest medical students decide to specialize in these areas given the attractive prospects? Or will some mechanism come in place to use proceeds from medical tourism to subsidize care for the poor masses?

3 comments:

Anuradha said...

Medical care in India is far convenient than western worls, I recently had a very bad experience in US. I was in severe pain, but it took 3 hours and filling some 50 forms before a doctor looked at me, and this is when I had gone to emergency. And I had the required insurance and still had to shell out $100 for one consultation.

Prabir said...

True, there are many people in India who are not able to afford medical treatment and the state is not able to bear the cost for them. But, this because Indian economy is still not that developed. Growth in Medical Tourism industry will bring in lot of foreign exchange for the country by virtue of which the government can raise the standard of healthcare in rural India.



Also, there are many medical tourism companies in India such as Sahara Medical Tourism who are successfully offering facilitation for critical surgeries such as knee replacement, bone marrow transplant, heart surgery, orthopedic surgery etc. Virtually zero waiting period and treatment at less than half the cost is pulling many patients from overseas to India.
Medical Tourism in India

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