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Operators managing health tourists in India have their hands full these days. Patients from the Western countries in need of surgery are travelling to India in large numbers in the last quarter of the calendar year, so that they can be well during Christmas and New Year celebrations, according to doctors and executives at medical tourism companies. This is despite reports of high levels of ‘superbugs’ in and around some Indian hospitals.
Confirming the trend, Dr Arun Kumar, CEO of Mediescape, a medical tourism company, told Business Standard the number of overseas travellers coming for treatment to India has risen since the beginning of October. These are mostly high-end health tourists and are coming from the US, UK and Europe. “We are fully booked till December, as patients want to be in the best of health around year-end festivities,” he said.
The bookings for October to December have risen by around 17-18 per cent, compared to the previous months of the year, according to Kumar. When asked about the impact of superbug reports on medical tourism, he laughed it off.
Dr Sunil Dubey, representing TheMedicalTourism.com, a consultancy service in health tourism, pointed out that the patients from the US, UK, Europe mainly come to India for surgeries or procedures that are tough to get approvals for from the health regulators in their respective countries. Another reason for them to travel to India is the long queue for surgery in some of the Western countries. The procedures that overseas medical tourists come to India for include infertility treatment, hip replacement, plastic surgery, and dental implants, among others.
Industry estimates suggest around 15-20 per cent of any Indian branded private hospital’s income comes from medical tourism. There were 800,000 medical tourists in India last year, and the number is set to cross the 1.3-million mark shortly. It is expected to be a $3-billion industry by 2015, according to industry data.
However, Dubey said that often patients from the Western countries prefer to travel to South East Asia, mainly Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia because of the overall better hygiene conditions. Replying to whether superbug was a concern, he said: “There is a level of hesitation about treatment in India because of many factors including the fear of catching infection.” In the process, India gets majority of international medical tourists from Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh and African countries.
Dr DM Kapoor, a cosmetologist in Fortis Hospital, Mohali, said the superbug perception had ‘to some extent’ impacted the medical tourism in India.
International medical journal, Lancet, had published a study on superbugs in and around Indian hospitals last year and another earlier this year. Recently, a Delhi-based Indian hospital, Gangaram Hospital, came out with a report suggesting that there were superbugs around. The superbug refers to an enzyme that makes bacteria resistant to a broad range of antibiotics.
Since cosmetic surgery and dentistry contributes 65 per cent of the revenue for medical tourism industry, Kapoor argued that the superbug reports by Western organisations could be a way to discredit India’s dominance in the field.
According to P V A Mohandas, founder and managing director, MIOT Hospitals, Chennai, medical tourism has been hit, more because of the government regulations rather than studies on superbugs. “The government must consider easing the immigration rules for foreign patients, some of who are in critical condition.” In the same city, Dr K M Cheriyan, chairman, Frontier Lifeline, stated the superbug theory had not affected the number of patients coming for treatment.
A senior consultant in the Department of Infectious Disease, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, explained that it was a fact that superbug, NDM1, was there. “In our hospital, we are taking all precautions to ensure the safety of the patients.” He added that the hospital was getting enough patients from overseas. At Fortis Malar Hospital, Chennai, too, medical tourism was growing, a senior executive told this newspaper.
In Bangalore’s NU Hospital, Dr Venkatesh Krishnamurthy said, “the superbug is an international phenomenon”. He added that there’s nothing alarming about it.
According to Dr Nagendra Swamy, medical director, Manipal Hospital, medical tourism is now witnessing an annual growth of 40 per cent. “We are not yet at a stage where the US will play a major role as the main source of tourists. So, the possible impact of news reports on superbugs has hardly affected medical tourism,” he said.
D N Agarwal, executive director, AMRI Hospitals, Kolkata, said: “We have an infection control committee led by microbiologists”, responding to a question on the impact of superbugs around Indian hospitals. “But a conspiracy theory by the Western world cannot be ruled out as we have the cheapest treatment in the world and tourists are coming from across countries,” Agarwal said. Lloyd Nazareth, chief operating officer, Fortis Hospitals, pointed out that the situation was not alarming for the medical industry in the country. “We have protocols to control it,” Nazareth added. Echoing similar sentiments, Sanjeev K Chaudhry, CEO, Super Religare Laboratories, said the superbug reports had not created any panic.
With inputs from Gireesh Babu in Chennai, Praveen Bose in Bangalore, Vikas Sharma in Chandigarh, and Shine Jacob in Kolkata