India's is becoming a major hub of medical travel

 

India is an undisputed economic powerhouse that has still to reach full potential. At the same time, it’s fast earning a reputation as a formidable medical travel hub due to a combination of highly skilled and empathetic professional staff, state-of-the-art technology and strong sense of innovation in the private sector.

This article on medical tourism in India is written by Margie T Logarta, Managing Editor of Panacea Publishing in Asia.

With various market players in the midst of putting their act together – the wheels of bureaucracy and a laid-back mindset have yet to catch up with the country’s mad rush to modernisation – getting the numbers to form an accurate profile of the industry can be quite a challenge with different estimates depending on who you talk to. The growth in foreign patient arrivals has usually been pegged at 25 percent annually, while an often-cited CII-McKinsey Report projects earnings in this business to reach US$2 billion by 2012 (for an alternative view, click here). A new study, commissioned by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, also echoes this figure.

What no one will disagree though is that medical travel represents a handsome revenue earner, thanks to the ever-rising costs of healthcare in the West, prompting medical facilities (both western and alternative such as Ayurvedic centres) and local governments throughout India to gear up for the expected spike in foreign clientele. Efforts to roll out the red carpet are increasing, notably the expedition of medical travel visas (see box) and the accreditation programme for secondary and tertiary institutions launched in 2006 by the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH). The 120 qualified assessors on its panel have given their nod to 11 hospitals as of April, while 43 are in various stages of evaluation.

And even as individual medical entities strive to improve themselves, projects such as the sprawling MediCity Gurgaon in New Delhi, modelled along the lines of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the Mayo Clinic, represent the future of healthcare in India, benefiting both domestic and overseas patients. The brainchild of renowned heart surgeon Dr Naresh Trehan, MediCity Gurgaon will consist of a 950-bed hospital and state-of-the-art training and testing centres.

Dr Trehan tells IMTJ: “This is a step forward that has to be taken after we have progressively built good quality hospitals. Now, we need institutions like MediCity, which complement the whole idea that India is moving towards developed status.”

Below, we profile four healthcare groups that have put their money where their mouth is and decided that investing in medical travel will raise standards, healing not only more prosperous overseas patients, but also the local population who, at the end of the day, are their primary constituency.

APOLLO HOSPITAL GROUP

With roots in Chennai where the first facility was established in 1983, the Apollo Hospitals Group now boasts over 41 hospitals (based on three business models: wholly owned and operated, joint venture and franchise) with a cumulative 8,000 beds, a string of nursing and hospital management colleges, pharmacies, diagnostic clinics and medical services such as the Family Health Plan, Apollo Air Ambulance and Apollo Telemedicine among others. It also provides consultancy for commissioning and managing hospitals.

In 2005, Apollo Hospitals gained distinction when the Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals Delhi achieved Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation. Its Chennai and Hyderabad facilities repeated the feat in 2006 and Ludhiana in 2007.

Not all Apollo Hospitals cater to medical travellers, clarifies Grant Muddle, senior vice-president, operations of Apollo Hospitals Bangalore, one of the group’s newest members. “Those with this niche as a focus, besides us, are New Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Calcutta and Ahmedabad. These are cities with good international connections.” (Muddle’s own facility is hopeful of winning a JCI seal of approval this year.)

Flagship Apollo Hospitals Indraprastha in the nation’s capital is poised for expansion, adding another 200 beds to become a 750-bed institution – but only after JCI re-accreditation is completed this month.

Anil Maini, president, corporate development for New Delhi, observes that since he joined three years ago, the numbers of medical travel customers have increased from 30 to 40 to about 300 or about 30 percent of their total business mix. He attributes the group’s attempts to raise visibility in the market as responsible for the influx. “This is not mainly due to advertising, but participating in road shows and Indian Chamber of Commerce missions. And our chairman (Dr Prathap C Reddy) is constantly invited to international conferences.” Maini, himself, is a familiar presence in prestigious medical travel forums.

“But getting the JCI label proved to be the real breakthrough,” he declares.

In the early years, patients from SARC (South Asia Regional Countries) kicked off the medical travel business for Indraprastha. Nepalese and Afghan nationals were regulars when it came to sophisticated procedures such as surgery, gastric banding and heart and liver transplants. Their ranks have now been swelled by individuals from North America, the UK, Middle East and Africa. Even movements from Burma have been recorded.

Adds Maini: “We are also working with the governments of Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethopia, Bahrain and the UAE to train doctors.”

A fresh supply of clients is expected to be flowing in shortly from Israel, following the recent visit of a group of doctors, who inspected Indraprastha and pronounced it up to their standards. “We are planning kosher-style kitchens and will also be adding Iraqi cuisine to our offerings,” Maini reports.

The field of hospitality has provided a treasure trove of enhancements for Apollo hospitals such as the Indraprastha. It has a separate department catering to overseas guests, equipped with a pleasant lounge manned by concierge staff, an extensive in-room  à la carte menu featuring international selections such as pizza and steak as well as services such as airport pick-ups and drop-offs, transfers and in some cases, local tours. These, however, necessitate a 5 percent surcharge to the normal fees. “Because these are add-on services,” Maini stresses.

Indian hospitals, believes Apollo Hospitals Bangalore operations point man and former hotelier Grant Muddle, will have no problems making it big in the medical travel arena due to the “exposure of patients to Indian doctors where they come from”.

Muddle’s GP in Canberra was originally from India. “The first time we met, I was already very comfortable with him. And it’s the same with others – they know what an Indian doctor is like, and there isn’t that fear factor.”

FORTIS HEALTHCARE

“Creating a world-class integrated healthcare delivery system in India, entailing the finest medical skills combined with compassionate patient care” is the noble mantra of this hospital network, founded in 1994 by Ranbaxy Laboratories, India’s largest pharmaceutical company.

In a little over five years, Fortis Healthcare has grown to encompass 13 hospitals (several more are in the pipeline) in northern India with a capacity of 1,803 beds, plus a number acquired when Fortis Healthcare purchased the well-known Escorts Healthcare System, one of the world’s largest health programmes. Its Fortis Hospital in Noida, a fast-rising satellite of New Delhi, is making a name in the fields of orthopaedics and neurosciences, and now count medical travel as another arena where it is eager to excel.

The Fortis Healthcare International Patients Service Centre in New Delhi (tel 91 11 4229 5222) was set up to provide “seamless service” for an overseas clientele, wanting to benefit from the existing expertise in fields from cardiology to opthalmology, renal transplants to cosmetic surgery and everything else in between. Package benefits include airport transfers, scheduling of medical appointments, coordination of admission, cost estimates for anticipated treatments, processing of medical second opinions, booking of hotel/service apartments, flight arrangements and visa extensions, interpretation, dietary need and religious arrangements and sightseeing.

In an effort to raise the bar on customer service, Fortis has introduced innovations such as the Fortis Healthcare Inn, located Fortis Mohali Hospital complex in Chandighar. According to Daljit Singh, president for strategy and organisational development, the facility, consisting of 32 guestrooms, including two suites, has been designed with cardiac surgery patients and their companions in mind. The interiors may be stylish but they are also functional, equipped with features geared toward aiding recuperation and rehabilitation. For added convenience, consultation with doctors is done onsite.

In terms of quality assurance, Fortis Healthcare is up there with the best of them. The 250-bed Fortis Hospital Mohali has been JCI-accredited since last year, while its laboratory systems and procedures have been endorsed by India’s first College of American Pathologists and is likewise endorsed by the NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories). It follows ISO/IEC 17025 standards, while technical standard operating procedures and guidelines meet benchmarks set by respected bodies such as the World Health Organization and National Committee for Clinical Laboratory Standards in the US.

MAX HEALTHCARE

Of the leading chain’s several facilities set up in New Delhi, it’s Max Devki Devi Heart and Vascular Institute and Max Super Speciality Hospital – both located in Saket, south Delhi – that cater to visiting patients. They made it to the first batch of facilities to be accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH) shortly after the scheme was launched in 2006.

Collaboration with Singapore General Hospital in the areas of medical practices, research and training has further boosted its reputation as a serious player in the medical travel scene.

Max Healthcare chairman and chief cardiologist, Dr Ashok Seth estimates that Max Heart and Vascular Institute is seeing about 5 percent of its total business mix come from overseas, and for Max Super Speciality, 10 percent (a facility is known for outstanding orthopaedic, neurological and pediatric services). This is the result of the chain having set up an international presence through representation in South Asia (Dhaka, Lahore, Colombo and Kathmandu), the Middle East (Doha, Muscat) and Africa (Dar Es Salam). Similar representations are planned in Singapore, UK and Europe and North America.

Says Dr Seth: “Our aim is ‘total patient care’. We are very aware of the fact that high-quality patient care has to go hand in hand with medical expertise.”

For Max Healthcare, this means not only curing and managing the disease but caring about their physical, mental and emotional selves. It’s about empathetic listening, offering choices and respecting their medical and non-medical needs and concerns.

Adapting the by now usual visitor-centred features of an international patient centre, airport pick-ups, liaison officers, money exchange and western-style cuisine among others, the organisation has endeavoured to “create a very comfortable environment for foreigners,” declares Dr Seth. Much of the business, which currently comes from the UK, Europe, Africa and SARC, he reports, is driven by bookings from healthcare facilitators like Planet Hospital and Med Journeys, but they’ve also realised the financial wisdom of promoting directly to the market and are working out the logistics of offices in Bangladesh and Dubai.

Rosy as the future seems, Dr Seth warns: “Medical travel without a doubt will increase, but we must not forget that the infrastructure [of India] also has to catch up. There should be ease of travel into the country and within it, so the overseas patient will feel happy and confident about moving around.

“Unless the government and medical travel industry are on the same wavelength, one or the other will lag behind.”

WOCKHARDT HOSPITALS GROUP

Despite 15 hospitals in its network across India, this healthcare deliverer seeks to add another 32 in the next two years.

Currently, international patients, majority of whom originate from North America, the UK and other parts of Europe, are directed to two flagship facilities in Mumbai (250 beds, expanding to 270 beds by year-end) and Bangalore (400 beds), since these cities boast excellent air connections to all parts of the world. Both are JCI-accredited.

Wockhardt Hospitals CEO Vishal Bali says that currently, their foreign business accounts for less than 10 percent of revenues, and though volumes are growing by 30 to 35 percent annually, it will continue at 10 percent because domestic growth is increasing at a much higher rate.

Bali says: “Operating well-run facilities is the best way of getting the message out that Indian hospitals are world class, as well as word-of-mouth publicity through satisfied patients. At Wockhardt, we strongly believe that being focused on high-end superspecialty care, which involves life-saving and life-enhancing procedures such as cardiac surgery, joint replacements and spinal procedures, the global healthcare consumer gets a value proposition which combines quality and affordability.”

But as security, the group makes full use of the internet, winning for its efforts the best International Hospital Website for Patient Information awarded during the Healthcare Globalisation Summit in Las Vegas in May. The judges were impressed by the Wockhardt website’s unique features such as the live webchat, testimonial videos of patient experiences, a query option to get at-no-obligation second opinion from expert doctors, a credit card payment gateway for easy money transfer and news articles. Offered also is a virtual tour and a foreign patients’ section with topics on travel and tourism, visas and an inventory of hotels.

When the website was set up, says Pradeep Thukral, the group’s associate vice-president and head international business, so was a 24/7 contact centre in Bangalore and toll-free helplines in the US, UK and Canada, where those with urgent enquiries are quickly attended to. On youtube.com, there are about 40 video clips on Wockhardt.

Staff of the International Patients service go out of their way to make the experience of being in a strange environment less stressful. A Wockhardt guest relations officer goes to the airport, regardless the hour, to meet guests. If needed, equipment such as an ambulance can be provided. Throughout the patient’s stay, that liaison can arrange companion stays, shopping sorties, interpreters, currency exchange and sightseeing among a myriad of
other demands.

Wockhardt sees no need to impose a surcharge on foreign clientele, but since individuals from this niche prefer to stay in the deluxe and suite categories, they naturally pay a premium for use of these rooms. Amenities here, which could rival any five-star hotel product, include concierge services, DVD player and cable channels, an internet-enabled computer, refrigerator, en suite bathroom, room service and laundry.

FURTHER CONTENT PUBLISHED BY THIS AUTHOR

Manila's expertise

Articles, 26 July, 2008

Manila shows off it's expertise in international medical travel

The value of medical travel

Articles, 01 July, 2008

The industry discusses the best way to describe itself

The accommodation issue

Articles, 01 July, 2008

Facilities and accommodation providers have a tentative relationship with the industry

Caring and curing

Articles, 01 May, 2008

The Philippines hopes to build on it's reputation with service quality

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