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India’s bid to exploit the potential of medical tourism should also drive it to improve its health services
Posted On Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 10:33:23 PM
This continues to be the driving force behind the dramatic growth in IT and IT- Enabled Services (ITES) industry in India.
In the healthcare sector, medical tourism is rapidly emerging as a hot sector, as individuals in the developed countries, especially the US, are relying on cost-effective medical services abroad.
Dr David Himmelstein, the lead author of a study on personal bankruptcies and associate professor of Medicine at Harvard, noted “Unless you are Bill Gates, you are just one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Most of the medically bankrupt were average Americans who happened to get sick.”
Unfortunately, one out of the three Americans doesn’t have medical insurance cover. No wonder healthcare has emerged as an important public concern in the US today.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison. One country’s problem is another’s opportunity. Countries like Singapore, Thailand and India offer excellent medical services at a substantially lower cost than what is available in the US and other developed countries.
This has led to the growth of medical tourism. It is expected that this will soon become a forty-billion dollar business.
The term medical tourism is, in fact, a misnomer as the patients from abroad, who come here for advanced medical treatment and surgery, are not in a position to go on a vacation after treatment.
Dr Prathap Reddy, who built up the chain of Apollo Hospitals, suggests that ‘medical-value tourism’ will be a better description. Can India hope to exploit medical tourism like what it did in IT and at the same time improve health services in our country?
Not everyone is convinced about the benefits of medical tourism. Those who oppose it point out that as it is India has very few doctors when compared to our huge population.
If medical tourism is promoted, the few doctors available will be attracted to offer their services to the high-paying foreign patients, thus reducing further their services to the local people.
Medical care in India has always faced an existential dilemma. Even students from villages after studying medicine in cities, do not want to go back to the villages.
Hence, in many primary health centres, doctors are not available most of the time. Another problem is the poor infrastructure of our public hospitals, even in cities. Medical tourism can help in improving our healthcare infrastructure if three measures are taken.
Firstly, the government should promote the private sector to set up hospitals with world-class standards to attract those who can pay for advanced medical services. Groups like Apollo, Fortis and Wockhardt have already set up hospitals with the best amenities available in the world.
They have got the prestigious Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation which is a guarantee of the excellent quality of their medical services and help them earn the trust of foreign patients.
Like IT services, these hospitals can earn valuable forex for the country. Through their top-notch services, they may inspire other hospitals in the private sector to raise their bar. Secondly, the government should try forging private-public partnership in the healthcare sector.
Let the private hospitals come forward to improve the shoddy infrastructure in the government hospitals. An incentive, apart from tax exemption, could be the bait for the entry of private sector into the government-run medical services.
Thirdly, a formula for cross-subsidisation of medical services for the poor from the chance offered by private-public partnership may be worked out so that the poor are not thrown to the wolves. Schemes like Sanjeevani in Karnataka are good models.
Global business outsourcing was exploited by the Indian industry for development of the IT and allied sectors. Can the policy-makers and Indian medical community exploit the opportunity thrown up by medical tourism? Can medical tourism become the next IT? All that is required is an imaginative approach while drafting the health policy.
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