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A,E,I,O,U of health tourism high

Mumbai, July 24: A British woman is coming to Mumbai soon for life-saving surgery. She has sold her house and is staking all on it. But she says it is still better than getting treated in the UK.

The Union government, which recently gave the nod to a one-year (extendable) medical visa for foreigners seeking treatment here, is on the right track. It’s not only NRI uncles and aunties combining a visit to an Indian doctor for cheap with their annual trip to India. Private hospitals in India have pucca phirangs dropping in ' in droves.

If the multiplex phenomenon is the single biggest factor for the recent Bollywood box-office boom, speciality hospitals have boosted the private healthcare industry the same way over the past year.

The industry estimates that there were 150,000 foreign visitors to hospitals in the last 12 months. According to a joint survey by the Confederation of Indian Industry and management consultancy firm McKinsey, medical tourism will become a $2-billion business by 2012. It is contributing about $400 million annually now, by a modest estimate.

Upbeat private hospitals, where patients from the UK, Europe and the US are streaming in, are proudly displaying their catch.

Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai, has been updating its file on foreign patients regularly. At the last count, over the past six months, there have been 400 overseas patients. Most are from Africa, followed by the Gulf, but ' the hospital proudly points out ' there were 20 from the UK and 13 from the US. “Not all of them are of Indian origin. One of our patients was from Switzerland,” said the hospital spokesperson.

Speciality hospitals, or private hospitals that claim to be state-of-the-art, claim to offer treatment that is on a par with international standards, at a fraction ' one-fourth to one-tenth ' of the cost in the developed world.

Navneet Malhotra, general manager, hospitality and foreign cell, Escorts Heart and Research Centre, New Delhi, rattled off names of English, Australian and US patients, “who are originally from those countries”, visiting the hospital over the past six months.

He added that Escorts seamlessly combines heart surgery with a visit to the hills. “There was Scott Davis, from Australia, 58, who underwent open heart surgery and after that went to holiday in Shimla,” Malhotra said.

The hospital organises visa extensions and holidays for the patients. “Previously, foreign patients were mainly from the Saarc countries. But things have changed over the past six months or so. There have been 600-odd foreigners in the hospital in this period. It has been a growth of 8 to 10 per cent,” he said.

Vishal Bali, vice-president, operations, the Wockhardt group of hospitals, also specialising in cardiac surgery, as well as urology and nephrology in its Calcutta hospital, said it is the largest provider of cardiac services to British patients.

“We have 700-800 international patients a year and at least one non-NRI patient from the UK every month,” he said.

The Hyderabad hospital of the Apollo group had 500 overseas patients last year. “The growth in the number was over 50 per cent last year,” the hospital spokesperson said, though he added that most of those from Africa, West Asia and the UK were NRIs.

“Maharashtra alone may have earned a revenue of Rs 100 crore from medical tourism,” said Anupam Verma, director, administration, Hinduja Hospital, who is also vice-president, Medical Tourism Council of Maharashtra.

Dr Rajiv Karnik, interventional cardiologist, Asian Heart Institute, said the spurt in foreign visitors is due to the “A, E, I, , U” (see chart) of the Indian medical industry.

While affordability, or ‘A’, is important, overseas patients also look at the quality of treatment available and receive Indian warmth as a bonus, Dr Karnik added. “Here we touch our patients to know how they are feeling. It’s not the same abroad.”

Dr Karnik pointed out a major advantage going for India where patients, waiting in long queues under national health services ' in the UK or Canada, for instance ' can expect to get urgent care.

“In Canada, the average time for a patient in a non-urgent condition to get an appointment with a specialist following a referral from a general physician was 17.9 weeks in 2004,” he said.

In that time, the patient can come to India, get treated and get back to work, for a few thousand dollars. There are hurdles in the form of scepticism ' not as much about Indian doctors as the infrastructure and post-operative care when patients are most vulnerable to infection.

Some also cite the irony that a country that doesn’t take care of its own sick ' government healthcare spending is only 5.2 per cent of the GDP ' nurses the ambition of treating the world.

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