Removing limits to India’s medical tourism

 

The world became a very different place for the global medical travel industry from early 2020, with a huge dip in the volumes travelling for treatment. However, over and above the issues directly caused by the pandemic, roadblocks remain to the growth of medical tourism.

The dilemma

The first roadblock is a dilemma for the various medical tourism destinations, and concerns the opening of borders in the middle of the pandemic. It is no secret that travelling, even if done with enough caution, is still a high-risk choice for those already suffering from medical conditions and a high level of trust in the destination is required.

We’ve seen this dilemma become a roadblock for countries which have strong reputations as high-quality medical destinations. Recently both Malaysia and Thailand have closed their borders to tourists and medical travellers.

The loopholes

The relative strength of the legal system for the medical travel sector in a destination could be a roadblock if loopholes and a lack of clarity exist. Does the blame fall with the destination regarding medical compliance, or with the traveller's middlemen?

In India, there is a set list of countries that can apply for and receive the benefits of a Medical Visa. Loopholes exist however and people from ineligible countries come on a general visa for treatment. This results in a discrepancy of data about inbound medical travel to India and, more dangerously, patients do not get the same protection afforded with a Medical Visa. If treatment goes wrong, trust is broken and the reputation of the destination suffers.

Fraud, scams and lack of industry regulation

Much has been written about forgery and scams covering transplants, cosmetic surgery, experimental surgery, stem cell treatments and fertility services. Coverage also includes pharmaceuticals, alternative medicines, dentistry, and cancer therapies.

One example is a report from China, describing a scam conducted by middlemen who conned US$145 million from rich Chinese for fake treatments. Other common occurrences involve hospital middlemen who dupe innocent patients into paying extra for a very minimal or sub-standard service. Scammers can often obtain professional credentials and institutional licenses through fraud or in exchange for bribes. A framed diploma in the waiting room may look real, and may even be real, but it is not necessarily a guarantee that the procedures the clinic offers even meet the minimal accepted standards that a patient might expect back home.

This roadblock goes against the very essence of the industry, which needs to excel at building trust between the receiver and the provider.

These scams flourish because there are few widespread attempts to regulate international medical tourism or to certify the majority of facilities at a medical travel destination. The global impact of the few international non-profit supervisory organisations is limited, and many of the patients desperate to seek medical solutions abroad are not aware of them.

Lack of transparency, accountability and government support

The inability of the medical travel sector to organise on a national or global level is also a roadblock. Industry players in India for example work mostly in a ‘grey’ area, with little transparency. Recent startups in the country have tried to break this roadblock, however there is still a lot of work to be done.

Better regulation and the closing of loopholes in medical travel would force more accountability and transparency, and this can to some extent help make the process more patient-friendly and trustworthy.

Many government institutions are still sceptical about supporting the medical tourism sector. A recent talk on medical tourism in India prompted a statement from an Apollo Hospital Joint Managing Director that the government needed to put in money, in order to boost the industry as it does in other sectors.

Language exchange and cultural barriers

While not too serious a roadblock, in recent years culture has come to play a major role in decisions relating to medical travel. For example, many international medical tourists choose India, due to the mixed and welcoming culture of the country. Close cultural connections to India perhaps explains the sources of most incoming medical travellers. An article in 2018 by The Hindu stated: “Bangladesh and Afghanistan continued to be the top countries from where the maximum number of foreign tourist arrivals (for medical purpose) was seen. In 2017, about 221,000 tourists from Bangladesh are estimated to have come to India for medical reasons, compared to 120,000 in 2015 and 210,000 in 2016. Likewise, the number of medical tourists from Afghanistan stood at 27,505 in 2015 and 61,231 in 2016. The number declined to 55,681 in 2017. Other countries from where large numbers of medical tourists came to India include Iraq, Oman, Maldives, Yemen, Uzbekistan, and Sudan."

Removing these roadblocks

Roadblocks are inevitable in a sector which is so diverse, but efforts can be made to reduce the effects of them to a minimum.

One suggested step for India’s medical travel sector is to promote the startups which are working to help the government better organise the industry and close the loopholes, and which operate according to professional standards. Government-funded support, such as that seen in Dubai, can also make medical tourism in any country more stable.

While the pandemic is still causing havoc, taking some small steps to break these pre-existing roadblocks could mean a better and brighter for medical tourism when recovery starts to happen.

About the Author:

Somya Verma is a Business and Content Analyst at GoMedii International, digital healthcare platform that focuses on providing high-class medical assistance to patients travelling abroad. She studied Economics and has a keen interest in research and analysis.

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