Maharashtra woos medical tourists

Maharashtra woos medical touristsMany people from the developed world come to India for the rejuvenation promised by yoga and ayurvedic massage, but few consider it a destination for hip replacements or brain surgery.

Yet that's exactly what the government in the Indian state of Maharashtra hopes will happen soon.

Together with the state's business sector and private health-care providers it recently launched the Medical Tourism Council (MTC) of Maharashtra.

Its aim: to make India a prime destination for medical tourists.

At its swish offices in central Bombay, also known as Mumbai, members of the council explain the concept.

Bombay, they argue, has private hospitals on a par with the best in the world.

Wherever you can offer better services at a more competitive price, that is the place that is going to win
Sanjay Agarwala, neurosurgeon

Many of the surgeons at hospitals such as the Hinduja are leaders in their field, working with the best equipment available.

But they can provide their expertise at a fraction of the price that comparable surgery would cost in Europe or the United States.

Integrated package

GS Gill is principle secretary at the state's health department and is convinced the council has found a winning formula.

"You get a quick procedure in a good quality environment at a lower cost", he says. "It's an ideal combination."

Walking in from the frenetic streets of Bombay, the Hinduja hospital is certainly a surprise.

The Hinduja hospital in Bombay
The Hinduja's facilities are as good as London or New York

Its spotless corridors and state-of-the-art equipment could be those of the best hospitals in London or New York.

But the major difference between the Hinduja and hospitals in the West is invisible: the cost.

The brochure produced by the MTC has a table listing the comparable costs of procedure.

It says, for example, that the average price of private heart surgery in the West is $50,000.

In Bombay it can be done for $10,000.

The same ratio applies to joint replacement, neurosurgery and cancer treatment.

The council plans to provide fixed-price treatment packages to foreign patients, integrating all their transport, medical and living costs into one price.

It will also use the state's more conventional tourist attractions.

One of the slogans being considered is "open your new eyes on the beach of Juhu" - a reference to the five-star Arabian Sea resort 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of central Bombay.

Who are the winners?

Initially the MTC plans to woo foreign patients who pay for private health-care in their own countries.

Will the new policy trickle down to benefit Bombay citizens?

But it also plans to work with state-run systems.

For instance, Anapum Verma, the council's honorary secretary, believes Britain has a "huge potential" for medical tourism owing to its long waiting lists for surgery.

He has already had exploratory conversations with some British National Health Service managers about the possibility of sending patients to India.

For the MTC, its plans are the next chapter in globalisation and the outsourcing of work to India.

As Sanjay Agarwala, the Hinduja's chief neurosurgeon, says: "Wherever you can offer better services at a more competitive price, that is the place that is going to win in the end."

But others question who the winners will really be.

Dr Rama Baru is a health academic in Delhi.

She believes that the marriage between the interests of Western medical tourists and a handful of private hospitals is at "a very superficial level as far as the medical care industry in India is concerned".

Contrary to the claims of the council, Dr Baru believes there will be no trickle down of money to the impoverished public health system, which currently receives just 0.9% of India's gross domestic product.

The MTC's plans may well benefit the doctors and patients involved, but it is currently unclear how a country that still suffers from malaria and TB will reap the rewards of a new wave of medical tourists coming to India.