Chennai, the health capital of India has come to be recognised as the 'The Mecca of Medicine'.
Coimbatore is also fast emerging as the next health destination in South India. With several specialised centres for treatment of disorders, this city has been performing exceedingly well in the recent past.
'Medical Tourism', the buzzword in the wellness sector is coming of age, albeit very slowly, without government support. Individually, the corporate hospitals are attracting patients from foreign countries through their websites, or agents or by word- of -mouth. The hype is still there and the expectations are quite high.
Each hospital has a list of foreign patients to boast about. In Chennai, speciality hospitals, like Apollo and MIOT, have more than 10 percent of their patients from other countries. Of course, there is no clear data on the foreign patients visiting Tamil Nadu.
This year's tourism policy note states that about 2 percent of the foreigners visiting Tamil Nadu come for treatment. But there is no market research to prove that this trend has taken strong roots in the state. The registers in individual hospitals reflect marginal increase in traffic in this sector.
Knowing the potential, the multi-speciality hospitals in Chennai offer packages for foreign patients. Apollo has a tie-up with Taj Group of Hotels. The patients rejuvenate in the comfort and hospitality of Taj resorts after treatment. Besides, the Tamil tradition and culture interests the foreigners, according to a hospital spokesperson. The resorts at the historic port town of Mahabalipuram are the most preferred destinations among medical tourists. NRI medical tourists have evinced interest in tradition and culture and they also visit the temple town of Kancheepuram.
Similarly, Coimbatore offers plenty of scenic spots in the nearby Nilgris district and in neighbouring state of Kerala .These regions are rich in biodiversity, and the patients may relax and recuperate after treatment. The hospitals have information about the tourist spots on their website.
Several hospitals have travel desks that book tickets for people to visit the neighbouring states. ``Many prefer kerala as it not only offers a good opportunity for sight - seeing but also offers authentic ayurvedic massasges," said a travel desk manger at the Apollo Hospitals, Chennai.
The cost-effective treatment combined with the tourism package comes much lesser than the cost that the foreign patients would have to incur in their country. Besides, they need not wait for months even to perform simple surgeries., especially orthopaedic treatment.
It started with orthopaedic surgeries. Even now, the orthopaedic surgeries top the list of procedures performed on foreign patients. However, the list range from cardio-thoracic to cosmetics surgeries.
In spite of the buoyant mood, the speciality hospitals feel at loss as the State Government has done very little. The problem is right at the root. For, tourism is one of the most neglected sectors, and therefore the State is not in a position to create the necessary infrastructure or lend the finances to promote medical tourism in a big way.
For instance, the multi-speciality hospitals in Coimbatore mooted the idea of an exclusive health zone near the airport where hospitals specialising in orthopaedic, gastroenterology and cardio-thoracic surgery, would cater , exclusively to foreign patients. It is still in the proposal stage.
The Government, it seems, will only play the role of a facilitator to showcase the hospitals. Two years ago, it was felt that a sustained campaign on the world-class facilities and the cost- effectiveness would bring in more patients. With the Government failing, the hospitals themselves have taken the initiative.
Chennai's speciality hospitals like Apollo, Sankara Nethralaya, MIOT and MMM, have been attracting patients from the SAARC countries, West Asia and South East Asia. Apollo has agencies in UK, USA and Canada for patients' referral. It has a dedicated international patients' service that takes care of the customers from the time they land at the airport.
MIOT Hospitals received an Award for Excellence in Health Care Export' from the Federation of Indian Exports Organizsation. MIOT had earned Rs 22 crore in foreign exchange from foreign countries between 2002 - 05.
Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Hospital offers interpreter services and specialised and customised meal plans to suit the tastes of even East Africans. It arranges for insurance and third party payments. The special packages clearly spell out the costs involved in care and is available on the website itself. Most speciality hospitals offer these essential assistance.
Madras Medical Mission has signed MoUs with the Ministry of Health, Tanzania; Nigeria; Republic of Seychelles; Sri Lanka and United States. Tie-ups with organisations in Kenya, Bahrain, UAE and Oman help patients referred to MMM, says a spokesman for of the hospital.
The speciality hospitals are not seeking any direct help from the Government. Creation of better infrastructure, like roads, and simplifying airport formalities could go a long way in improving medical tourism, hospital administrators point out.
For instance, Coimbatore has been chosen as the next big destination in the State for both IT and Health. But the infrastructure needs to be toned up. It takes more than one hour to travel a distance of about 7 - 8 kilometres during peak hours. There is only one star hotel in a city that has long been considered the 'Manchester of South India'.
Besides, none of the hospitals have any accreditation from Joint Commission International, USA. As there is no system of accreditation within the country, the foreigners, especially those in the developed world, are still afraid to come down for treatment, say industry sources. Only now, the managements are realising the importance of being accredited at least at the national level.
Accreditation and monitoring are considered to be crucial for promotion of medical tourism In spite of the speciality hospitals performing well, the health industry expects the Centre to formulate a national policy on medical tourism to set standards and put in place a monitoring mechanism to ensure quality treatment.
Until the government country or the states comes up with a specific policy, the health industry may not be able to reap the profits from 'off shoring' medical procedures , the way it has succeeded in Information and Technology outsourcing.
Medical tourism is here to stay. But it has a long way to go. When it comes of age, the private health sector is poised to eat a much, much bigger pie.
TN's most reputed Multi Specialty Hospitals & Health Care Centers:
(Tamil Nadu Tourism Department website)
• Apollo Hospitals
• Sri Ramachandra Medical Center (SRMC)
• Madras Medical Mission
• M V Diabetes Speciality Centre (MVDSC)
• MIOT Hospitals
• Sankara Nethralaya
• Dr.Aggarwal's Eye Hospital
• Vijaya Hospital
• Dr.Mehtas Hospital
• Solace Meditour Private Limited
• Ayush Therapy Center
• Lifeline Muliti Speciality Hospital, Chennai.
• Cholayil Sanjeevanam, Chennai.
• KG Hospitals, Coimbatore
• Kovai Medical Centre and Hospital, Coimbatore.
• Ganga Hospitals, Coimbatore.
• PSG Hospitals, Coimbatore.
• CMC, Vellore