Medical value travel (MVT) in India is expected to get a major boost in 2023 on the back of pent-up demand, soaring cost of treatment in the West because of inflation, besides the Russia-Ukraine war driving more patients from both countries for medical care to India. In addition, the government’s initiatives under the ‘Heal in India’ scheme — of accrediting Ayush centers and launching Ayush e-visa — is also expected to fuel MVT in the wellness space which has revived after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Indian economy could add an additional $9 billion by 2026 with the use of traditional medicine, wellness, therapeutic use of Ayurveda, yoga and wellness, combined with a focus on the curative aspects of healthcare. Overall, the global MVT market is projected to grow from $13.98 billion in 2021 to $53.51 billion in 2028 at a CAGR of 21.1 percent in the forecast period of 2021-2028. According to the Medical Tourism Association (MTA), every year around 14 million people globally travel to other countries for medical treatment. India is clearly poised for a greater share of the MVT pie. In the MTA’s Medical Tourism Index (MIT) India is ranked 10th out of the 46 global destinations, 12th in 20 wellness tourism markets, and 5th in the wellness tourism market in APAC. According to the data from the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), approximately 6,97,453 medical tourists visited India in 2019 alone for medical treatment, and by 2023, India is expected to account for 6 percent of the global MVT market share.

Government support needed

The MVT sector in India is powered by 40 healthcare facilities that are accredited to the Joint Commission International (JCI) and 1400 NABH-accredited hospitals that provide quality care. MVT contributes about 10 percent to the revenues of many large hospital chains and could rise to 12 per cent - 15 per cent in the next couple of years although there is a need to address healthcare infrastructure in general. Since India is amongst the most preferred destinations for MVT, there is a need for more policy support to facilitate medical value travel to India and develop MVT as an organised sector.

The government is moving in that direction with the ‘Heal in India’ initiative to boost MVT with a ‘One Step’ portal for the convenience and ease of credible information for foreign patients. The portal offers multiple services to foreign patients such as easy airport coordination, accessing the patient’s documents, addressing queries, etc, and the introduction of medical visas, also known as ‘Ayush Visa’. These facilities are expected to increase the inflow of foreign patients.

To provide impetus to the growth of MVT and wellness tourism in India and maintain the country’s competitive advantage, a comprehensive National Strategy for Medical Value Travel and Wellness Tourism has been put in place. Under the Heal in India initiative, 37 hospitals including 30 in the private sector across 17 cities in 12 states have been identified for promoting medical value travel.

Sought-after destination

Low cost of treatment, large number of highly trained English-speaking doctors and state-of-the-art diagnostic equipments, among others, make India one of the more sought-after destinations among overseas patients. Patients from different parts of the world come to India for cancer treatment, organ transplant surgeries, plastic surgery, etc. Compared to the United States, Australia, Singapore or the United Kingdom, India can provide cost savings of up to 65-90 percent, which is significant for patients. Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Kolkata are the top destinations for MVT in India. Kolkata plays a vital role for price-sensitive patients from low and middle-income countries (LMIC) such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

Bangladesh, Iraq, Maldives, Afghanistan, Oman, Yemen, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania account for about 88 percent of the total international patients visiting India with Bangladesh alone accounting for 54 percent of them.

For the continuous growth of MVT, the government should come out with a framework to prioritise opportunities for India. In the short term, we must focus on increasing market share in regions where India already enjoys high credibility. And as a long-term strategy, we must ensure India’s presence in developed countries providing outbound MVT for sustained growth. SAARC countries and select regions of Africa provide immediate opportunity while regions like US and China can be medium-term targets.

Like other sectors of the economy, currency rates also affect MVT. And the rupee’s depreciation pushes up the cost of care, since 30-40 per cent of a hospital’s cost is on account of medical equipment out of which 80 per cent is imported. If the Indian rupee strengthens against the dollar, MVT would get a further boost. Conversely, a rising dollar, which would lead to inflation, may affect growth rates.

Tech driven

The rapid rise of high tech and its pervasive use in the healthcare industry means digital health and MVT are converging digital technologies with health, living and society to enhance consumer experience and make the process more personalised and transparent.

Hospital chains will be relying more on tele-medicine or remote consultation with video calls for pre-treatment diagnosis and assessment, and post-treatment follow-ups. Healthcare providers will also need to leverage data analytics to analyse the available data to ascertain which practices are more effective for cost-saving and improving patients’ health. Additionally, business intelligence can help healthcare providers gain insights into the daily practices of doctors and staff, patient care and satisfaction, and management and administration, to enable them to make value-based decisions.

Going forward, digital tools will continue to increase patient engagement with foreigners through instant messaging apps, tele-medicine, electronic records and AI-enabled technologies as part of the process of digital integration in the MVT value chain. India is already known as ‘The Pharmacy of the World’ and has the potential to become ‘The Provider to the World’ by delivering quality care at affordable cost.

The writer is CEO, AMRI Hospitals, Kolkata. Views are personal.