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Exploring the Healing Horizons: Navigating India's Medical Tourism

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Tulsi Patel

While tourism often generates images of famous attractions and endlessly redundant photos, it may be taking on a new form in a far more human aspect. In recent years, data from the Medical Tourism Association has shown that medical tourism, a phenomenon in which citizens of a country travel to another country for a medical procedure of their choice, has drastically increased, with major trends developing in Asia. Within the continent, the country of India has become an extremely popular destination. While medical procedures are often highly individualistic, this mass, temporary, and constant diaspora has long-lasting impacts on India and its economic and social systems.

The idea of medical tourism seems daunting at first, especially when weighed against travel costs. However, a clear analysis by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that the average cost of medical treatments in India can be as little as 1/10th of the cost—a stark contrast from healthcare treatment in countries such as the United States, where medical care is in a more complex administrative system, driving up prices. While the reduced cost of treatment in other countries would be expected to be retributed in terms of lower treatment sophistication, think otherwise. As India becomes a growing hub for technology in places such as Bangalore, in the southern part of the country, healthcare systems compare very strongly with those of highly developed countries with strong healthcare, such as Norway and the Netherlands, even on a technological level. Additionally, a large number of physicians and medical professionals in India are trained in allopathic medicine based in the West, where they pick up on commonly used languages, therefore reducing the incidence of language barriers for patients from such foreign areas.

In particular, the city of Chennai, also in the southern region of India, is becoming a strong hub for medical tourists, so much so that it is often referred to as “India’s health capital." The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a non-governmental trade association and advocacy group, has observed that Chennai takes in about 45 percent of the country’s medical tourists- particularly due to its rapid diligence in updating its medical systems into highly sophisticated practices. In addition, hub cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Kolkata are also receiving an influx of patients seeking medical care. Tourists are drawn to these cities due to their pre-existing strong health infrastructure, as opposed to the declining medical systems or increasing costs in their home countries. Matters of healthcare aside, the actions of these major cities have already taken great strides in bolstering India's reputation and economy, and with the addition of healthcare as a contributing factor, India has a large-scale foundation to build up from here.

As of 2020, the medical tourism sector in India is valued at around 6 billion USD and is expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.1 percent by the end of the period in 2027. CAGR refers to the annual growth of investments or sectors over a specific period or a measure of how much a sector has earned on its inputs every year during a given interval. This rapid economic growth in the medical sector has also begun to reflect on other factors involving tourism that have increased India’s economic diversification. This is how India has profited from globalization as they adopt and expand on new medical technologies to increase their standing on an international scale. By attracting patients while also garnering resources to strengthen internally, India is, on a global scale, ready to become a healthcare giant. While the medical failures seen in the country have been heavily reflected during the COVID-19 pandemic, as seen during the devastating oxygen shortages that revealed lapses in the medical industry in 2021, India must adapt its capacity for both its internal patients and external ones as travel reopens. Once it adapts to support patients at this level, there is an extremely high growth index predicted for its medical sector.

India itself has caught onto the implications of tapping into this gift. The Indian embassy and consulate have reduced restrictions on its tourist visas, which allows for an ideal time for patients to receive medical treatment before returning to their home country. These visas can also be extended for up to a year and allow patients to return up to three times annually. Additionally, through the political lens, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has provided key support in efforts to further modernize Indian healthcare, ushering in a global digital healthcare revolution. In August, the G20 Health Ministers Meeting was held in Gujarat under the umbrella term Global Initiatives on Digital Health. The conference discussed efforts to bring democracy and technology together to promote international partnerships to make healthcare more accessible and equitable in the modern world.

Back in 2022, Prime Minister Modi broadcasted his clear message to make India the medical tourism hub of the world at the Global Investment in Ayush Summit. With his large support garnered through the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, he has popularized new government programs designed to make medical tourism more accessible. India’s health minister, Dr. Mansukh Madaviya, has also joined this push, making medical tourism a champion sector. Most notably, a government-based program known as “Heal in India'' provides detailed information online for foreign patients on the various health services offered along with suggested healthcare agencies and reviews. Interestingly, the same website promotes Incredible India, the country's main tourism group, showing India’s clear motive to intertwine the success of both of these industries.

Looking forward, India provides an example of how medical care is beginning to grow across Asia, not only through necessity but also through conscious choice. Medical tourists are ushering in a new era for both healthcare and tourism, which needs to be carefully balanced to achieve optimal results for patients and existing systems. As its healthcare systems grow internationally, it will be an intriguing matter to see how India combines its political, medical, and economic fields to tap into its newfound capability to heal beyond borders.

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