x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

India knows how to treat its visitors

The country churns out thousands of highly qualified doctors and nurses a year and, with its private hospitals among the world's best and cheapest, it is fast becoming a major attraction for foreigners with health problems.

Jean Wakam, a resident of Cameroon in central Africa, flew almost halfway around the world last month to Pune for surgery that would hopefully stop him becoming confined to a wheelchair.

A few months ago, Mr Wakam, 56, was suffering pain in his right leg that he says was so excruciating it almost felt like he was walking on shards of glass. An MRI scan revealed he needed back surgery to treat a complex condition that causes compression of nerves in the spinal cord. "I went from hospital to hospital - in Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria - but could not find a surgeon who could relieve [the] agony," Mr Wakam says. "That's when a friend recommended going to India."

Searching on the internet, he came across Ruby Hall Clinic, a well-known private hospital in Pune, the second largest city in the Indian state of Maharashtra after Mumbai. Within days of sending his medical report, a surgeon was assigned, the date of the surgery was fixed, and a visa invitation letter sent to him to arrange a medical visa at the Indian Embassy in Kampala, Uganda. Mr Wakam underwent surgery lasting six hours last week. He awoke in a spacious, centrally air-conditioned private hospital suite with cable TV, and was assigned a personal dietician and attendant.

"'Why India?' someone asked me before I came here," he says. "Now, when they see me walking again without [crutches], they'll know why." Indian private hospitals such as Ruby Hall Clinic are increasingly popular with foreigners as the country emerges as a top global destination for medical tourism. Travellers seek not only cosmetic procedures such as liposuction and breast implants, or alternative traditional treatments, but also more high-risk procedures, such as heart bypass surgery and joint replacements.

"First-world treatment at Third-world prices" is the main selling point. The cost differential is enormous. A bypass surgery in India, for example, typically costs less than 10 per cent of the price in the US. A 2007 study by the US health consultancy Mercer Health and Benefits showed that the average total medical fees at top private Indian hospitals such as the Apollo and Wockhardt chains is between 60 and 90 per cent lower than those of average American hospitals.

"Cost is the key advantage that India offers," says Bomi Bhote, the chief executive at Ruby Hall Clinic. "But treatment here is not just low-cost, but also high-tech." India is luring growing numbers of uninsured or underinsured western patients, who often get package deals that include flights, transfers, hotels, treatment, and often a post-operative holiday, from private Indian hospitals. But in recent years, even westerners with strong insurance cover have been encouraged to take the low-cost option of offshore medical treatment.

Some pioneering US insurers, such as the South Carolina-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield, offer insurers cash incentives and reimburse their travel expenses if they choose offshore hospitals. United Group Programs, an insurance company in Florida, offers plans to reimburse some types of overseas treatment in conjunction with Apollo, the largest hospital chain in India. India also attracts patients such as Mr Wakam, from poorer African and Gulf countries where treatment may not be available.

Mr Wakam says he considered going to Canada for treatment but opted for India; not because of the prohibitive cost of the surgery in Canada - he is well insured - but because the waiting time for surgery in North America is a few months, at best. "In contrast, treatment in India began as soon as I landed," he says. India's medical tourism sector, currently estimated to be worth between 12 billion rupees (Dh984.1 million) and 15bn rupees, is expected to bring in revenue of between 50bn rupees and 100bn rupees by 2012.

It will account for between 3 and 5 per cent of the country's overall healthcare market, according to a recent joint survey by the Confederation of Indian Industry and McKinsey, the management consultancy. India's US$17bn (Dh62.43bn) healthcare industry is expected to grow 13 per cent annually for the next six years, buoyed largely by the medical tourism sector, the Indian government predicts. India has an edge over other destinations for health tourism, with its world-class technology, vast pool of skilled specialists and well-qualified nurses and paramedical staff. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 doctors and nurses graduate from the country's top-rated medical colleges each year.

And India has one of the world's largest pharmaceutical industries, which exports drugs to more than 180 countries. But although the quality of a number of private Indian hospitals is comparable with those in the West, there is little foreigners can do if they are victims of negligent care. Legal action for medical malpractice can take a long time under India's inflexible judicial system. Even if action is successful in court, monetary damages can be much smaller than in western countries.

So far, only a handful of such cases have come to light but to address the concerns, some insurers offer co-ordination with American hospitals, local concierge services and supplementary medical malpractice insurance. "If you have the money, you will be assured the best care," Mr Bhote said. business@thenational.ae