Medical tourism: Millions seek affordable healthcare in India

medical tourism
Beyond affordability, India's medical tourism sector offers shorter wait times, advanced treatments, and cultural immersion.

India is experiencing a surge in medical tourism, with a significant increase in medical tourists from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Despite being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, India is becoming a popular destination for ‘medical value travel’, and its potential in this sector is expected to grow further. Projections indicate that the number of medical tourists will exceed pre-pandemic levels. In 2024, India is expected to cater to around 7.3 million medical tourists, up from an estimated 6.1 million in 2023, according to credit rating agency Crisil.

Medical tourism involves patients traveling to another country to receive affordable and quality healthcare. Compared with western countries such as the US, Europe, Turkey, Thailand, Singapore, and South Korea, India offers cost-effective treatment alternatives, which is a major attraction for foreign medical tourists. India ranked 10th on the Medical Tourism Index (MTI) out of 46 destinations worldwide from 2020-2021. The top destinations in terms of the number of patients for medical value travel include Thailand, Mexico, the US, Singapore, Brazil, Turkey, and Taiwan.

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Medical tourism on the upswing

While there is a perception of India’s excellent healthcare facilities, this is not uniformly true. There are pockets of excellence within the country. On one hand, India attracts foreign nationals for its healthcare services, but on the other hand, it struggles to provide basic healthcare to its own citizens. Due to this perception, people often end up in places where high-quality healthcare is available.

India attracts most of its foreign patients from poorer nations where quality healthcare is inaccessible and due to cost advantages. However, in the domain of alternative healthcare practices like Ayurveda and Yoga, tourists from wealthier nations such as France are also attracted. Interestingly, wealthier Indians often seek treatment abroad.

Nonetheless, India’s rising popularity in medical tourism cannot be ignored. Along with affordable treatment, other factors such as the availability of top healthcare infrastructure and a pool of skilled and well-trained medical experts make India an appealing destination for those seeking high-quality healthcare services. Additionally, India offers advanced treatments with shorter waiting times, which is particularly appealing to patients from less advanced economies. Beyond affordability, India’s medical tourism fascinates foreign nationals because of privacy, comprehensive care options, supportive government policies, and even cultural immersion.

The surge in medical tourism aligns with a positive global outlook for the sector. This optimistic forecast is encouraging major hospital chains to expand their international patient base. Consequently, these hospitals are looking to establish international outreach offices in new geographic locations. Apollo Hospitals, for instance, already operates over 20 outreach offices in multiple countries under the name Apollo Hubs and plans to add five more in Congo, Kazakhstan, Mauritius, Liberia, and Iraq.

These hospitals attract medical tourists primarily for procedures in organ transplants (liver, bone marrow, and kidney), cardiac surgery (including paediatrics), oncology, orthopaedics, and neurosciences. India also caters to those seeking alternative therapies. Kerala has carved a niche as a premier Ayurvedic destination, while Rishikesh and Mysore attract visitors interested in learning and practicing yoga.

Hospital chains are already seeing a rise in their revenues from foreign patients. For instance, Max Healthcare saw a 27% year-on-year growth in its international patient revenue. Fortis Healthcare’s international patient revenue was around Rs 113 crore, accounting for a significant 7.7% of the company’s overall hospital business revenue for that quarter, according to their latest earnings call data. In the medium term, medical tourism for private hospitals is expected to grow twice the overall industry growth rate for FY25, generally accounting for 10-12% of hospital revenue.

As India continues to attract more foreign nationals, individual states are also developing their infrastructure and regulations. Hyderabad Chief Minister A Revanth Reddy recently announced that the state government is gearing up to create a medical and health tourism hub spread over 1,000 acres in Telangana. Pune is also eyeing a position as a medical tourism hub due to its flourishing medical landscape. The city’s emergence as a leader in organ donation and its strong connectivity to Mumbai positions it as a potential hub for medical tourism.

Some of the major Indian cities attracting medical tourists include Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Nagpur, Kochi, Pune, and Nashik.

Policy changes are already taking place, such as a new visa category for medical tourists. Issues like the availability of air ambulances and liaison officers have also been resolved. One area that India must prioritise is legal regulation. India has signed MOUs with 60 countries on health partnerships, which also contribute to health tourism. This is a government-to-government agreement level. Moreover, promoting health tourism as an industry should be considered. Another area needing policy intervention is standardising the cost.

Medical tourism in India is also happening through a different method. For instance, women from Pakistan come to Rajasthan for delivery, which should not be called medical tourism but medical migration, as Indian healthcare is being utilised by neighbouring countries. This is a local understanding, and people do not harass each other. A similar situation is happening in the Northeast, where people from Myanmar come to Manipur. This is a grey area that needs regulation. In the health tourism spectrum, there are not just tourists but migrants as well.