Sun, sand and surgery

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By International patients who come to India for cosmetic surgery are combining their treatment with sojourns in the country's many holiday hotspots, says Varuna Verma
  • Published 13.12.09

When Carol and Gerard Conroy asked cosmetic surgeon Dr K.M. Kapoor if they could holiday after their face and neck lift surgery, the doctor gave the UK couple an immediate go ahead. For Dr Kapoor, senior consultant, cosmetic surgery, Fortis Hospital, Mohali, it was a routine request. “I was only surprised by their choice of holiday. They wanted to visit the Sunderbans,” he recalls.

Fortis Hospital’s international patient department — which arranges holiday trips for overseas patients — got on the job. “We sent the Conroys to the Sunderbans after giving them instructions on how not to let the dust and humidity affect their health,” recalls Dr Kapoor.

Every year, about 35 per cent of Fortis Hospital’s international cosmetic patients opt for a post-surgery holiday. “We have a dedicated department that organises these trips. We also have tie-ups with several travel companies,” says Dr Kapoor.

Cosmetic surgery tourism in India is no longer a serious, hospital-bound affair. “People don’t want to travel half way across the globe just for nip-and-tuck cosmetic surgery. They prefer to do it while they are on a holiday in India,” says Arun Kumar, director, Mediescapes India, a Delhi-based medical tourism firm. He adds that 55 per cent of international patients who contact the company for cosmetic treatments combine it with a holiday.

India, according to Kumar, is going the Thai way. Thailand — which is rated as the cosmetic surgery capital of the world — sells itself as a cosmetic-surgery-holiday destination to attract patients. “This is the major reason it has the highest inflow of cosmetic surgery patients,” feels Kumar. Thailand gets over one million such patients in a year.

British model Toni Wildish combined her breast implant surgery with trips to Amritsar and Goa

India is, of course, a far second even now. A Confederation of Indian Industry-McKinsey study conducted on medical tourism in India in 2003 estimated that India would get one million medical tourists by 2011-2012. “Of these, 30 per cent are cosmetic surgery patients,” says Dr Kapoor.

But Kumar feels the market for cosmetic treatment is picking up now because medical tourism firms in India are changing tack. “Cosmetic treatments are no longer sold as just serious medical packages. Companies are now adding a sun-and-surf holiday twist to them,” he says.

Mediescapes India, for instance, has changed the way it handles a patient query now. When international patients contact the company, they are asked to furnish all medical details — as well as details about their dream vacation in India. Step two is to check with the doctor. “We check two things with the doctor — details of the surgery as well as what holiday is best suited to the patient — easy, medium or strenuous,” explains Kumar. The company then designs a treatment-cum-holiday package for the patient.

Many other medical tourism firms have jumped on the holiday bandwagon. The Delhi-based Sahara Medical — which started in 2006 — offers holiday packages ranging from the regular Golden Triangle circuit (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur), Shimla and Goa, to offbeat destinations like the Sunderbans. Forerunners Healthcare Consultants also makes custom-made holiday packages for its patients, as per their holiday preferences.

DOUBLE DEAL: Dr K.M. Kapoor with Carol and Gerard Conroy who visited the Sunderbans and Shimla

Mohali’s Fortis Hospital plans to cash in on the upcoming Commonwealth Games to sell its cosmetic surgery-cum-holiday packages. “We will tap the tourists who will come to India for the Games. The hospital is designing tailor-made packages for them, which will be marketed from June next year,” says Dr Kapoor.

Of course, not all patients coming to India for treatment go for a holiday on the side. While most people coming for cosmetic and dental procedures look to fit a vacation into their India sojourn, “only 10 per cent of those who come for other treatment consider holidaying,” says Vishal K. Laroia, business head, medical tourism, Sahara Medical.

“Patients coming to India for cardiac, orthopaedic, neurological and spinal surgeries are discouraged from taking holidays. They can’t be zipping off to Jaipur after such major operations,” adds Kumar.

Cosmetic surgery patients, on the other hand, can be up and about immediately after surgery. “Most cosmetic treatments are out-patient-department procedures and patients don’t need intensive post-operative care. So they head for holidays immediately after the procedures,” says Fatima Pooya, cosmetologist, Dr Pooya’s Healthcare Centre, Bangalore.

One of the reasons many patients want to dovetail a holiday into their medical treatment plans in India is the relatively low costs of both. A tummy tuck surgery in India, for instance, costs Rs 1.5 lakh, including a three-day stay in hospital. “In the US, the same surgery costs $14,000. A patient can fly to India, get operated, holiday and fly back home spending the same amount of money,” says Fortis Hospital’s Dr Kapoor. Similarly, a breast augmentation surgery — which costs $10,000 in the US — costs just $1,200 in India.

Also, since cosmetic surgeries are not life threatening medical procedures, patients can plan their holidays in advance, says D.S.A. Surindher, cosmetologist and director, Cosmesis India, a Bangalore-based cosmetic surgery centre. Cosmesis India’s website carries links to places of tourist interest around Bangalore. “Since most of my patients are over 40 years of age, they prefer to explore historical destinations. Mysore, Halebid and Belur are a big hit with them,” says Surindher.

Dr Anup Dhir, senior consultant, cosmetic surgery, Apollo Hospital, had the perfect patient in Susan Smith. The 55-year-old Canadian had checked into Delhi’s Apollo Hospital for a nose job and liposuction surgery for her arms and abdomen. “After surgery, I asked Smith to remain in India for 14 days. But she didn’t know how to kill two weeks,” recalls Dr Dhir. Smith availed of one of the hospital’s pre-designed holiday packages and spent two weeks in Goa before heading home.

A holiday also gives time for the tell-tale signs of surgery to fade away. A body lift, for instance, changes the patient’s gait for a few days, and hair transplant causes swelling on the forehead. “So patients prefer to remain in a country where no one knows them till they recuperate completely,” says Mohan Thomas, director, Cosmetic Surgery Institute (CSI), Mumbai.

Of the 80 international patients Thomas treats every year, 25 per cent combine cosmetic treatment with a holiday. CSI has made an exhaustive list of tourist destinations, hotels and airline and railway links and fares that is provided to patients who approach them. “This helps them make their holiday plans in advance,” says Thomas.

Clearly, medical tourism in India comes with an enticing fringe benefit — the opportunity to enjoy a holiday in an exotic locale.