Over 40 countries are competing in the medical tourism sector with new entrants planning to enter the marketplace,
India’s positive gesture of reaching out to countries, providing medical assistance--supplying COVID-19 vaccines, as well as essential drugs and equipment, during the pandemic has earned it goodwill across the world. These initiatives will play a game changer for India’s medical tourism sector going forward, experts suggest.
Foreign tourist arrivals (FTAs) in India have reported a significant increase over the past decade, according to official data. International tourist arrivals on medical visas grew over six times from 112,389 in 2009 to 697,453 in 2019, information shared by the government in the Lok Sabha on February 8 showed.
Subsequent lockdowns following the spread of pandemic last year, world-wide travel restrictions and cancellation of all non-emergency surgeries resulted in postponement of medical procedures for international patients arriving in India, impacting the sector, industry experts said. However, with easing of travel restrictions and economic activities falling back to normal, the sectoral recovery is expected to improve.
“Vaccine Maitri has provided India a platform with enhanced credibility in terms of medical capability and reliability,” said Piyush Tiwari, Director (Commercial & Marketing), India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) Limited. “Eventually, whenever the situation across the world normalizes and medical tourism starts to recover, India is likely to be one of the biggest gainer destinations and is likely to leap way forward ahead of its competitors due to its new found credibility and recognition as a reliable and capable medical hub,” he said.
India has supplied COVID-19 vaccines to more than 70 countries as on March 22. Of these 14 percent supplies are in the form of grants, 29 percent are under COVAX facility and 57 percent are commercial supplies.
“The Vaccine Maitri initiative has raised India’s global image as a nation that has advanced [Research and Development] R&D in medicine and the best of scientists, doctors and technology to lead the world in facing any health challenge,” said Dr. Sangita Reddy, Joint Managing Director, Apollo Hospitals Group.
“This will definitely have a positive fallout on medical value travel, which has been affected by the pandemic and subsequent flight and travel restrictions. Medical value travel is an evolving segment in India with immense potential for growth. There was an impact last year due to COVID, but healthcare is a resilient industry and medical value travel is beginning to show signs of returning to its normal growth as we emerge out of the pandemic,” she added.
As mentioned earlier, medical tourism--based on FTA arrivals on medical visas--has witnessed considerable increase over the past decade ending 2019. However, breakdown of data with regards to the purpose of visit by tourists for 2020 is not available, the government said in its reply to the Parliament last month.
“Medical Value Travel is an important contributor to revenue for hospitals and brings in precious foreign exchange for the country, and the pandemic affected this with a consequential impact on revenues from this medical tourism. We harnessed the power of digital technology to provide virtual consultations and telemedicine services to our patients abroad,” said Dr Reddy of Apollo Hospitals.
In 2019, foreign tourist visits for medical purposes was 6.4 percent of the total FTAs, up from 2.4 percent in 2014. While leisure holiday and recreation accounted for the most 57 percent of FTAs in 2019.
“The Indian medical value travel market was expected to touch $9 billion in 2020, but COVID put a spoke in the wheel! However, with the vaccines being administered around the world, India is expected to stand out as the destination of choice for world-class healthcare at costs that are around one-tenth that in countries such as the US,” according to Dr. Reddy.
The sector needs to be streamlined, organized and regulated in order to increase its share from about 7 percent of the total foreign arrivals into India and a global market share of about 18 percent, ITDC’s Tiwari suggests. “Currently, the sector is not only unorganized but is also filled with unscrupulous elements who not only inflate the costs but also provide inadequate and unreliable services to foreign medical tourists,” he said.
Over 40 countries--including Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Philippines, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Mexico etc.--are competing in the medical tourism sector with new entrants planning to enter the marketplace, experts note.
In addition to a reliable and affordable medical facility, a medical tourist requires many support services such as visa and travel arrangements, stay for attendants, food and language issues etc., explains Tiwari.
“These are currently administered under various separate departments/ministries. Certain large hospitals are providing all these services under a single roof but such hospitals are few and are generally on high budgets. In case medical tourism is targeted to be established as a large and profitable venture, a single window and a reliable, certified and regulated common platform needs to be created to offer solutions on different budget packages,” he said.
The majority of international patients coming to India are from countries in the immediate neighbourhood, data show. With India’s vaccines and medical supply reaching far across continents and its medical fraternity gaining credibility, experts opine that this should be capitalized by marketing India’s capabilities as the preferred destination for medical travel.
Some of the popular treatments for which foreign patients travel to India include cardiac procedures, orthopaedics (including joint replacement), nephrology, neuro surgery and cancer.
“Cost effectiveness, focus on advanced medical technology and availability of skilled medical professionals are some of the other reasons that attract international patients to India,” according to Dr Reddy. “As the industry evolves, India will attract medical travelers from diverse countries and demography,” she added.