Times of India,
By Shabnam Minwalla

With the trickle of international patients coming to the country for treatment, 'medical tourism' is becoming a trend.

So, while our hospitals are accustomed to Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and residents of West Asian countries, they are suddenly noticing a new breed of patients - the American secretary who has found that a chin implant in Khar makes financial sense; or the Britisher who, frustrated by interminable National Health Service (NHS) queues, realises that a cataract operation in Madras is a viable option.

As far as the Indian healthcare industry is concerned, the future certainly holds dollar-filled promises. Already, British politicians have suggested that NHS patients be sent to India for cataract and hip-replacement surgeries, while it is entirely possible that insurance giants will soon funnel patients to India for, says, bypass operations or organ transplants.

"India can certainly become the healthcare destination of the world," says George Eapen, CEO, Apollo Hospitals, adding that his group is actively targeting the Africa, SAARC and West Asia market. "We have two great advantages-highly skilled manpower and substantially lower cost of treatment." Concurs Dr Malpani, "At the moment, individual doctors attract patients through their websites or because of their reputation. But a little coordination at the national level could make a big difference." Dr Malpani tackles at least four queries a week from outside the country - and usually one out of these eventually lands up in his Mumbai clinic. Similarly, Dr Sharma estimates that about ten percent of his clients come from as far afield as the U.S., Argentina and South Africa - a statistic which might well double by the end of the year. The Apollo Hospitals, too, have found themselves catering to a fair number of Americans on the lookout for remodelled noses and Britishers who need new hips.

Most doctors first noticed this phenomenon about three years ago when numerous NRIs decided to use their holidays to get in touch with both their roots and root-canals. "Until about ten years ago, we were lagging far behind our Western counterparts," explains Dr Bhatia, adding that today, this gap has largely been bridged.

"The NRIs who visited us began to tell their friends and word spread." More than anything else, however, the Internet has made a difference. "Our technology is only six months behind that of the West," explains Dr. Hrishikesh Pai, an infertility specialist. "The Internet has given us a chance to convey this to the world." Concurs Dr Bhatia, "one of my dentist friends recently put up a website, and within months three patients had come from the UK for teeth implants." Clearly, the money saved is worth the hassle of the trip and treatment in an alien land. An in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) cycle in the U.S. costs$6,000 as opposed to $1,200 in India. Similarly, getting a nose reshaped in Argentina costs $4,000- five times the going rate in Mumbai, while Lasik surgery in India saves the average Westerner at least $1,500 per eye. Given these figures, why aren't more patients stampeding into our hospitals and nursing homes? Part of the problem is India's image - which fills potential patients with trepidation and doubts about hospital hygiene and disposable syringes.

"Once we dispel negative ideas about India, we will see a large flow of patients," says Dr Pai, adding that our infrastructure and levels of cleanliness hardly help matters. "We have always had the skills and expertise, and now even our hospital facilities are improving."

Authored by : Dr Aniruddha Malpani, MD and reviewed by Dr Anjali Malpani.

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