There was a time when everything that carried the stamp of a foreign country was considered of higher calibre and more reliable than its Indian counterparts. This included medical treatments. Remember the days when going abroad for an expensive surgery was a matter of course at least for those Indians who could afford it? On the other hand, reports of international medical tourists checking into Indian hospitals were almost unheard-of. But not anymore.

Today, the tide seems to be turning, with some of the more prominent Indian hospitals routinely playing host to international patients who come here to be cured of ailments weak or grave. Everything from cosmetic surgeries to cancer therapy is on offer at these hospitals, with their world-class doctors and excellent medical infrastructure. Which explains why patients from countries across Africa, from Russia and from neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been visiting Indian cities for medical treatments on a regular basis.

In a 2015 report by the global accounting firm Grant Thornton, it is projected that in revenue terms, the medical tourism sector in India would be worth around $7-8 billion by the year 2020, which is more than twice as much as the value recorded in 2015, which was $3 billion. 

On Independence Day, Sushma Swaraj, the Minister of External Affairs, also sent out a tweet promising a streamlined system of delivery for medical visas. “On the auspicious occasion of India’s Independence Day,” the tweet says, “we will grant medical visa in all bonafide cases pending with us.”

One reason such a system needs to be put into place is that the demand for medical visas to India has increased over the last few years. And it isn’t just for dental and dermatological treatments that patients come here. The influx of critical cases—requiring organ transplant, for instance—has also risen.

“Once, a man from South Africa, suffering from HIV, needed a kidney transplant,” says Dr Sunil Prakash, senior consultant and director of the Nephrology Department at Delhi’s BLK Super Speciality Hospital. “So in the case of HIV, we need to kill the infection and boost immunity. This was one critical case, as when we do a transplant it indirectly reduces the immunity of the patient. We handled it pretty well and the operation was successful. I am glad to tell you that the person has been doing quite well for the past three years now after the treatment.”

Dr Prakash believes that the concept of satellite hospitals, now catching on in India, has been important to drawing medical tourists to these shores. He says, “Private hospitals are coming forward to build bridges with foreign hospitals and patients by launching satellite hospitals. The government should now be promoting this in their official exchange programmes. More and more health delegates should be involved at the time when people from our country go to another for trade meetings. Medical treatments in India are now famous for their quality and effectiveness, and moreover they are cheaper as compared to what you get in other countries. So the government should really look into it and put together a promotional campaign.”

In a 2015 report by the global accounting firm Grant Thornton, it is projected that in revenue terms, the medical tourism sector in India would be worth around $7-8 billion by the year 2020, which is more than twice as much as the value recorded in 2015, which was $3 billion. The report stated this surge is likely due to the cost-effective medical treatments available here.

Dr Sabyasachi Bal, director, Thoracic-Onco Surgery, Fortis Flt. Lt. Rajan Dhall Hospital, Vasant Kunj, was recently in the news for successfully removing a 3.2kg tumour from the chest of a 39-year-old foreign patient.

“People go to any hospital only when they are assured of the good quality of surgical care and of the cheaper rates,” Dr Bal tells Guardian 20. “I don’t think that anybody ever had any significant doubts about facilities of Indian surgeons. Moreover, they have been trained pretty well from good institutions abroad. What has happened really is that new hospitals have come up here, which can match the centres abroad in terms of both technology and the quality of care provided at affordable rates. Cost is also a major element here, as in some places in Asia, it is four to five times more of what we charge here.”

Besides, large-scale privatisation of medicine has boosted medical tourism to India. Dr Bal adds, “Entry of the private sector on the medical front in a big way is the reason of this sudden spike in the number of patients from foreign countries. Previously, we had only one or two private hospital chains, which, too, were only limited to some cities. Earlier, it was just government hospitals that looked after these matters and due to a lack of required funds and the long waiting lists of patients from our country itself, these hospitals could not entertain any foreign cases. So when the private hospitals stepped up their game, with the same level of quality care, the same medical expertise at almost one tenth the prices being charged by hospitals abroad, the number of foreign patients to India increased automatically. Previously, international patients comprised 5-10% of our total patients, and currently this figure has spiked to 15-20% in my hospital.”

Many foreign patients often complain about the lack of general awareness when it comes to getting medical attention in India. Some even rely on unauthorised mediators to get their travel documents and other official medical records in order.

Paediatric ICU at the Fortis hospital. Image source: Fortis

To avoid such contingencies, private hospitals here have set up dedicated international marketing experts on their premises, who take care of everything from accommodation to transportation for incoming patients. Max Hospital is a case in point.

Dr Yogesh Kumar Chhabra, consultant, Nephrology, Max Super Speciality Hospital, in Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh, says, “I feel that we have the potential to expand to go far, but for that we need good marketing strategies. Our government should push these marketing strategies across the globe. Definitely, the government is helping the cause by giving medical visas easily, but we are still unable to showcase our full potential to the world. We can do much better, but good promotional campaigns should be made to further increase the number of patients coming to India. The African market is our potential market where we are actually doing well. And this cannot be only a government effort; it has to be public-private combined effort. Many people are still unaware of what we have to offer. People, for instance, from the UAE or Saudi Arabia are still deviated towards China for medical treatments when here in India we have services for the same which are much cheaper and equally effective.”

The point about promoting the true potential of India as an emerging hub for medical tourists is important. If we look at this scenario from the standpoint of a prospective medical tourist, a lot still needs to be done in terms of making the process of travelling to India on medical visas hassle-free. It’s also required that we address the information deficit about the types of treatments and medical facilities available here, as one popular website,, is now doing.

This online portal serves as a guidebook for anyone considering travelling to India for medical purposes. Swadeep Srivastava, founder and managing partner, India Virtual Hospital, says, “We provide a combination of online and offline services. Our first step is to help you with the decision-making. As per the illness, we provide three to five treatment options available for that in India. This is followed by a price comparison of these treatments. After finalising the doctor, we arrange for a telephonic conversation between the patient and the doctor. We give them a number of accommodation options near the hospital they choose, along with pickup services at the airport.”

He further adds: “We also provide hospital companion services. In this service, a companion will get all the formalities done at the hospital and will stay with the patient till the time the treatment is complete. We also have call centres which are handled by doctors and counsellors which clear all the patients’ queries. In addition, we provide a recovery assistant to the patient, who will help the post-treatment services, including medicines and prescriptions straight from the doctor who was responsible for the treatment.”

India Virtual Hospital is also launching its mobile app in October this year, and the organisation is also working on making international and domestic medical travel cards available to patients. This, too, shows how India has come a long way as the destination of choice for medical tourists from across the globe.

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