Healthcare Tourism: India needs to step on the gas

Healthcare Tourism or Medical Tourism are the terminologies initially coined by the travel agents and the media when patients travel outside their national boundaries to seek either more specialized and/or cheaper but high quality healthcare available in other countries.

World Health Organization (WHO) defines Healthcare Tourism as an activity that covers:

  • Medical care
  • Sickness & well-being
  • Rehabilitation & recuperation

The reasons:

The main reasons of healthcare tourism are:

  1. High medical costs, especially for those patients who are under-insured or uninsured
  2. Long waiting period for elective surgery
  3. To avail technologically more advanced medical treatment and care

For example, USA though globally recognized as one of the technologically most advanced countries in providing high quality healthcare to the patients, the cost of comprehensive healthcare in the country is often beyond reach of many Americans.

In not too distant past (2000), the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked USA as the country with most expensive healthcare systems in the world. Moreover, it has also been reported that in the US, the fees paid to doctors for medical services are usually much higher for an ‘uninsured’ patient than one who is ‘insured’.

Such a scenario has given rise to situation where many Americans travel out of the country for a lower cost medical care, if not adequately insured.

‘Time Health’ in an article titled ‘A Brief History of Medical Tourism’ stated as follows:

-       In 2006: 150,000 US citizens underwent medical treatment abroad

-       In 2007: the number grew to an estimated 750,000

-       In 2008: it increased to 1.3 million

-       In 2010: the figure further swelled to an estimated 6 million citizens.

The article commented that “Patients are packing suitcases and boarding planes for everything from face lifts to heart bypasses to fertility treatments.”

The key influencers and preferred destinations:

The most common influencer for healthcare tourism globally, as stated earlier, is lack of or inadequate health insurance and the most common emerging destinations for healthcare tourism in the world are Thailand, Singapore, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia and India. This is mainly because of fact that the costs of availing high quality healthcare services in these countries are much cheaper- on an average around 80%. For example, a cardiac surgery, which will cost more than US$ 50,000 in the US, can be availed for US$ 20,000 in Singapore, US$ 12,000 in Thailand and between US$ 3,000 and US$ 10,000 in India.

Other factors influencing Healthcare Tourism, particularly in India, besides significant cost advantages, are:

  1. High quality treatment and hospital stay with world class medical technological support
  2. Rigid compliance with international treatment standards
  3. No language barrier with the western world
  4. Government taking active steps and interest in the medical tourism sector

In all these four areas significant advantages that India offers will need to be adequately leveraged in a sustainable manner by the country.

Most popular treatment areas:

The most popular treatment areas are as follows:

  1. Alternative medicines
  2. IVF treatment
  3. Bone-marrow transplant
  4. Cardiac bypass
  5. Eye surgery
  6. Dental care
  7. Cosmetic surgery
  8. Other areas of advanced medicine

Evolving scenario:

Since last several years healthcare tourism is fast evolving as one of the key growth drivers of the global healthcare sector as a whole.

Dr. Fred Hansen in his article titled, ‘A Revolution in Healthcare’, highlighted that increasing number of high-quality healthcare facilities in the developing coun­tries are attracting medical tourists from the developed countries like the US and the European Union (EU).

Apprehension in the US about growing Healthcare Tourism of India:

India Knowledge@Wharton in its June 2, 2011 issue reported as under:

  • In the past, US President Barack Obama had singled out India for what he sees as the country usurping American jobs and business.
  • In May 2009, he removed some tax incentives for US companies who allegedly preferred to outsource rather than create domestic jobs. “Buffalo before Bangalore” was his rallying call at the time.
  • In April 2011, he told a town hall gathering in Virginia that Americans shouldn’t have to go to India or Mexico for “cheap” health care. “I would like you to get it right here in the U.S.,” he said.
  • In January 2012, President Obama reiterated the same intent in the run up to the forthcoming US presidential election for his second term.

The Global Market:

In 2006 the global market for healthcare tourism was around US$ 60 billion. According to McKinsey & Company, this market is expected to expand to over US$110 billion by 2012.

India – a contender for supremacy:

Healthcare tourism in India, despite being smaller compared to the western world, is surging ahead both at the national and the regional levels with enormous potential for future growth, if explored appropriately with a carefully charted strategic game plan in its evolution process.

Currently India is emerging as one of the preferred destinations for global health tourists. The country received 150,000 medical tourists in 2004, which grew by 33% to 200,000 in 2008, mainly from the USA, UK and the Gulf countries, primarily due to low-priced and high quality healthcare in wide ranging disease areas. More and more people from these countries are finding the prospect of high quality and value added medical care in India financially attractive.  As per estimates, India will receive over 500,000 medical tourists per year come 2015.

While visiting India for healthcare, patients not only get treated by the best medical professionals with western medical training, but also are able to stay in deluxe accommodations fully equipped with the latest television set, refrigerator and in some cases even a personal computer, without facing any language barrier and that too by paying just around 1/10th of the price charged in the developed nations.

Moreover, according to John Lancaster of ‘The Washington Post’ (October 21, 2004) Indian private hospitals have a better mortality rate for heart surgery than American hospitals.

With over 8,500 beds ‘Apollo Hospitals’ chain runs 53 different hospitals across the country, followed by “Max Healthcare” that runs 8 medical centers in the National Capital Region (NCR) in India.

Indian Market:

Economic Times, in its January 6, 2009 edition reported, “Indian medical tourism to touch Rs 9,500 Crore (around US $ 2.1 billion) by 2015”.  Another report titled “Booming Medical Tourism in India”, published in December 2010 estimated that the medical tourism industry will generate revenues of around US$ 3 billion by 2013, though with a market share of just around 3% of the of global healthcare tourism industry.  Thus, in healthcare tourism, India still remains a smaller player with enormous growth potential.

New job creation:

Both Public and private sector studies estimate that healthcare tourism in India could attract around US$ 3 billion to the country by 2013 with around 40 million direct and indirect job opportunities.

Cost advantage in India:

Cost Comparison: India vs UK:

Nature of Treatment

Treatment Approximate Cost in India ($) *

Cost in other Major Healthcare Destination ($) *

Approximate Waiting Periods in USA / UK    (in months)

Open heart Surgery


> 18,000

9 – 11

Cranio-facial Surgery and skull base


> 13,000

6 – 8

Neuro-surgery with Hypothermia


> 21,000

12 – 14

Complex spine surgery with implants


> 13,000

9 – 11

Simple Spine surgery


> 6,500

9 – 11

Simple Brain Tumor -Biopsy -Surgery

1,000 4,300

> 4,300 > 10,000

6 – 8

Parkinson -Lesion -DBS

2,100 17,000

> 6,500 > 26,000

9 – 11

Hip Replacement


> 13,000

9 – 11

* These costs are an average and may not be the actual cost to be incurred.

(Source: Health Line)

The key components:

The following four basic components constitute the healthcare tourism industry: • Healthcare Providers: Hospitals, mainly corporate hospitals and doctors • Payers: Medical/ Health insurance companies • Pharmaceutical Companies: for high quality affordable medicines • IT Companies: operating in the healthcare space

Growth drivers and barriers:

Following are the key growth drivers:

  1. Government support through policies and initiatives
  2. High quality, yet low cost care
  3. Much less or no waiting time
  4. World class private healthcare infrastructure
  5. Rich source of natural and traditional medicines. Ministry of Tourism is  promoting the traditional systems of medicines, like,  Ayurveda, Siddha, and Yoga to project India as a the destination of choice for spiritual wellness and healing

In future, the world class and low cost private sector healthcare services are expected to drive the growth of the medical tourism in India.

However, any shortages in the talent pool and inadequacy in other basic infrastructural support like roads, airports and power could pose to be barriers to growth of this sector, if not addressed immediately.

Government Assistance:

The government of India is now supporting the hospitals to get the Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation.

In 2009 the government announced a revised guidelines for ‘Marketing Development Assistance (MDA)’ scheme for approved Medical Tourism service providers like, representatives of hospitals accredited by Joint Commission for International Accredited Hospitals (JCI) and National Accreditation Board of Hospitals (NABH) and Medical Tourism facilitators (Travel Agents/Tour Operators approved by Ministry of Tourism, Government of India and engaged in Medical Tourism (MTSP) and to the approved Wellness Centers i.e. representatives of the Wellness Centers accredited by the State Governments.

All these measures are expected to accelerate the growth of healthcare Tourism industry in India.

List of JCI Accredited Hospitals in India:

Following are the JCI Accredited Hospitals in India till 2007:

Name and Place Accredited on
1. Indraprasta Apollo Hospital, New Delhi June 18, 2005
2. Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai August 25, 2005
3. Apollo Hospitals, Chennai January 29, 2006Disease- or Condition-Specific Care (DCSC)Certification for Acute Stroke: 29 April 2006
4. Shroff Eye Hospital, Mumbai February 18, 2006
5. Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad April 28, 2006
6. Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai October 20, 2006
7. Satguru Pratap Singh Apollo Hospital, Punjab February 3, 2007
8. Fortis Hospital, Mohali June 15, 2007

Source: Joint Commission International, 2007

The challenges:

Following are the key challenges that India will need to address to emerge as a healthcare tourism hub of the world:

  • Improving the infrastructure
  • Adequate training of the staff
  • Enhancement of the image of India as a corruption-free country
  • Continuous improvement of overall service to the patients


While encountering the global economic meltdown many corporate business houses, even in the developed nations of the world, are under a serious cost containment pressure, which includes medical expenses for their employees. Such cost pressure has already started prompting many companies to send their employees to low cost destinations for treatment, without compromising on the quality of their healthcare needs. This trend could offer an additional growth opportunity in the healthcare tourism sector in India.

According to the ‘Medical Tourism Climate Survey 2010’ report, the leading medical tourism destinations are currently India, Thailand, Hungary and Malaysia and the leading source of patients being again the USA, UK and Russian Federation.

The survey rates Thailand, India and Singapore as the best in terms of quality of overall patients’ care. Insurance and liability issues for the patients from some major markets of the world could pose to be a challenge for speedy growth of this industry.

Countries like, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, located in quite closer proximity to India, will continue to offer a tough competition in the healthcare tourism space of the country.

In an increasingly heated-up fast evolving competitive scenario, the name of the game for India will be to ‘step on the gas’, sooner and effectively.

By: Tapan J Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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