Medical Tourism is a much reviled word, in many ways an oxymoron. Tourism is all about holidays to be enjoyed with family and friends, while ‘medical’ connotes ill health, hardly conducive to travel. Maybe Medical Travel might be a more appropriate word.That as it may, medical tourism has gained wide currency and captured the world’s attention.
It is viewed as the next big opportunity for countries like Thailand, Malaysia, India, Singapore in Asia and Costa Rica, Panama, The Bahamas and Peru in Latin America.
The reasons for Medical Travel are not difficult to understand.
People travel in search of good quality medical care. In the past business tycoons, politicians with ill gotten wealth, businessmen, aging filmstars and shaikhs from the Middle East would typically travel to foreign shores seeking high quality medical care. Most of them traveled from the lesser developed countries like Middle East, India and Latin America. The destination usually was the United States.
As medical technology and skills globalise and become available in lesser developed countries often at prices, which are a fraction of those in the Western World, Medical Travel seems to coming full circle.
Reasons for travel today include an inability to afford expensive healthcare in the USA, a long waiting list in government run facilities in Canada or the notorious NHS in UK and lack of facilities for advanced medical care (as in countries like Oman, Yemen, Bangladesh, Fiji, Mauritius, Nigeria and Kenya). Many individuals also travel for elective essentially cosmetic procedures. The humongous difference in the costs of medical procedures in countries like India and say the US and very little difference in the quality of care is also driving medical travel.
The number of people traveling around the world for better medical care at the moment seems to be low. McKinsey in a recent article on Medical Travel estimated that annually about 65000-85000 people traveled for medical care to destinations far away from home. In India apart from Apollo Hospitals and to a certain extent Wockhardt Hospitals, there are not too many hospitals who are attracting a significant number of medical travelers.
However the potential for growth is huge and there lies the opportunity for hospitals in India.
In my experience almost all the people who have come for medical treatment to hospitals like Max and Artemis have had had great experiences. Friends in Apollo, Fortis and Wockhardt also tell me that foreign patients generally have a great experience. Most of these hospitals go out of their way to ensure that the patients coming from foreign shores are well taken care of. They have specially trained staff taking care of their various needs, from airport pick ups to bedside admissions, arranging for laptops and mobile phones, accommodation, sight seeing, choice cuisine and even shopping for attendants, everything is arranged by the hospital. The nurses and the doctors too go out of their way to make them comfortable.
Patients contrast this sharply with their experiences of the hospitals back home. On their return they spread the word around. This seems to be the most effective Marketing strategy at the moment. The only problem with this approach is that it takes time for the good word to spread. Most Indian hospitals do not have the wherewithal to buy expensive print or electronic media in foreign countries. They mostly rely on medical travel facilitators a new breed of travel operators who connect individual patients with hospitals on their network. They check out the hospitals, meet individual doctors in these hospitals and than help patients who contact them through their website or offices choose the right hospital. They also make arrangements for their travel and have their representatives visit the hospital while they are recuperating. Medical facilitators earn a commission from the hospitals and I am sure also charge the patients.
Many hospitals are now looking at using the Internet to market themselves. Advertising on the net appears to be a cost effective solution. Many hospitals are busy with SEO’s, PPC and other forms of internet advertising to reach out to foreign patients.
My belief is that Indian hospitals will have to bet big on this opportunity by opening facilitation centres in foreign countries, send doctors abroad to meet foreign patients ( A US board certified Indian surgeon can meet 20 pre-selected patients in NewYork or elsewhere and try and convince them to travel to India for surgery) and hire sales people who can try and generate business from large US corporates and foreign insurance companies.
For large US corporates burdened with huge and potentially back breaking healthcare spends on present and retired employees and their families medical travel seems to be a Godsend. They can significantly cut their costs by persuading employees to sign up for healthcare plans, which allow for treatment of certain conditions in select hospitals in countries like India and Thailand. They can even offer cash rewards to those employees who sign up as incentives. They will still end up reducing their costs significantly.
The Insurance Companies must view this as an opportunity to sell a low premium product to 45 million or more people presently uninsured or underinsured in the US. They can offer an insurance product at very low premiums, which allows for treatment in certain hospitals in third world countries. Currently all of them are waiting and watching for someone to take the plunge.
In countries like UK and Canada, the government can try and reduce the waiting periods by offering patients the choice to travel for their treatment.
All this and more is possible only when all the stakeholders (Corporates, Payors,Governments) believe that healthcare services in countries like India are at par if not better than those in their own countries. With JCI and NABH accreditations guaranteeing quality in many hospitals in these countries, the claim appears to be true.
The big question is that how many are today willing to trust and put their lives in the hands of doctors in a strange country?