Medical Value Travel in India-A promise yet to be fulfilled.

For at least the last 10 years one has been hearing about the Medical Value Travel (MVT) market in India touching a whooping USD 5bn, 8bn or even 10 bn by 2020. These are breath-taking estimates provided by venerable consulting firms from almost 10 years ago. These had been quoted ad-nauseum by all manner of people (including, I must confess, myself) as the potential of MVT in India in presentations made to likely investors, foreign governments and indeed overseas hospitals with the potential to send patients to India. Many analysts have cited it as the next big thing after India’s dominance in exporting software to all parts of the world. It has been touted as the real big thing about to hit our shores.

Sadly, the reality has turned out to be a little different. The big wave hasn’t really reached our shores. The MVT business including those flowing into sectors like travel and hospitality would today be well under USD 2 Bn.

So, what worked and what didn’t and more importantly what needs to be done?

In my view what has largely worked for MVT in India has been the outstanding medical services and world class outcomes that our clinical teams continue to generate. The commitment of the clinicians, private investments in additional beds, equipment and technology has helped deliver cutting-edge care to thousands of patients who continue to travel to India in search of better health. Increased competition among private hospitals have also ensured that pricing hasn’t gone through the roof and India still is by far the least expensive destination for high-end medical care.

Medical outcomes and care are just one part of what patients look for when they wish to travel abroad for healthcare. Sadly, we have not done as well in almost everything else.

The government of India is still not very friendly towards medical travelers. In many countries the Indian missions have archaic rules for issuing medical visas, often the patients themselves have to spend time in long queues outside the embassies to apply for visas and touts merrily ply their trade. The International airports even in major Indian cities do not have adequate facilities to receive sick patients. While, immigration counters for people traveling on medical visas have come up, a lot more can be done at the airports to ensure greater comfort for weary travelers who are also sick, often seriously.

Even those private hospitals in India who are teeming with thousands of international patients have very scratchy patient services. Almost every aspect of non-medical services is neglected. The interpreters are few and of dubious quality, patient concierge services do not exist and hardly any hospital makes the effort to serve the patient’s preferred cuisine. Information regarding the treatment plan, medical risks involved, and prognosis is usually scarce, and patients must depend on unreliable sources such as clinician’s secretary and other assistants to get whatever information they can get.

The biggest bugbear of all remains the unreliability of patient estimates. Healthcare is an inexact science, it is almost impossible to predict with great accuracy the course a patient may take in a hospital. However, hospitals wishing to treat international patients must come up with fixed price packages for at least the most commonly done procedures and surgeries and ensure that the bills of foreign patients do not escalate.

To make matters infinitely worse, often the patients are assisted by the so-called Healthcare Facilitators (HCF’s) who are still largely individuals (and not well organised institutional service providers) looking after ”their” patients. Most of them have the right intention to assist the patients during their stay in India, however they are seriously hampered by a lack of organised resources and well-established processes. Sadly, some are plain opportunists, who dump patients in hospitals, which pay the maximum commissions and disappear thereafter. There is a crying need and a great opportunity for medical concierge services providers to set shop and look after foreign patients in need of assistance. The established hospitals must also encourage and support the emerging organised players in this space.

MVT in India (also healthcare in general) remains unregulated. It is extremely important that the government urgently creates an independent regulatory body, which works closely with MVT stake-holders to set up rules for all those involved in medical value travel. These will include airlines, hospitals, hotels, spas, ayurveda centres and HCFs. Quality standards need to be developed and implemented in all the aspects of MVT. Accreditation norms must be a lot more stringent and command greater respect.

The other big problem that remains unaddressed is the sheer lack of information and knowledge about modern India and its medical capabilities. Most people abroad have preset notions of India being largely an over-crowded nation of over a billion people mostly mired in crushing poverty and squalor. This is clearly a uni-dimensional and dated narrative completely at variance with reality. All stake holders in MVT in India including the government and private healthcare providers must join hands to work towards dispelling this notion about India. A campaign like ‘’Incredible India’’ is sorely needed.

Essentially, MVT in India has not done as well as expected because of a lack of vision on the part of key stakeholders namely the private hospitals, the government and the HCF’s. All three need to seriously introspect. The hospitals and the HCFs need to look beyond just the next patient and invest in better infrastructure, better systems and processes, better quality people and a greater commitment to overseas patients. The government needs to create a regulatory and supportive environment, which allows them to function well and with greater efficiency.

This can’t be too difficult.

All it requires is greater alignment, focus and commitment among all MVT stakeholders.

The views expressed are personal