KOLKATA - Thomas Hiland, a Denver,
Colorado, real-estate broker, was diagnosed early
this year with a heart condition that required
complicated valve-replacement surgery. Given that
his ailment would have given him less than a year
to live if left untreated, Hiland hardly looked
like one who would travel thousands of kilometers
to a developing country for surgery. But speaking
from his hospital bed in New Delhi, Hiland said
that from an American's perspective, "India is the
best place in the world to have heart surgery.
"I had considered two hospitals in the USA
first," said Hiland, "but they took three weeks to
give me an estimate of about [US]$140,000. Since
my health-care insurance had lapsed, I found out
that I would have had to wait for a year to get a
new insurance carrier pay the cost. But my
symptoms were progressively getting
worse. I could neither wait
that long nor afford the cost on my own."
That's when Hiland started doing research
on the Internet about the possibility of getting
treated outside the United States and chanced upon
Delhi's Escort Heart Institute and Research
Center, which claimed to be "one of the best
health-care institutions in the world".
Hiland sent an e-mail to Escort. "I remember
sending the e-mail on a Friday evening, and within
12 hours I got a telephone call from Dr Naresh
Trehan," the head doctor of Escort, said Hiland.
He said Escort offered him a total
treatment package that included a visit to the Taj
Mahal and other historic sights near Delhi at a
price cheaper than wherever he had tried before.
The valve-replacement operation, a luxury room in
the hospital for 22 days, the return flight and
the pleasure trip cost him about $14,000 - about
one-tenth the cost he was quoted at home. Hiland
said he had explored Thailand too, which he knew
was another destination for cheaper health care,
but "the best hospital there took longer to
respond and quoted twice the price of Escort".
Hiland is one of the increasing tribe of
patients in the West now taking advantage of the
low-cost medical treatment in Asian countries such
as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and, more
recently, India. Nearly 1.5 million patients from
various parts of the world arrived in India for
treatment in 2005; this year, that number could
rise by 25%.
involvement A highly significant recent
trend is that US companies, swamped by rising
health-care and insurance costs, have also begun
using overseas health-care-tourism services to cut
their employee health-care bills.
Ridge Paper Products, a North Carolina-based
company, for example, has started offering its
2,000-odd employees the option of getting their
next major illness treated in India to reduce
their health-care expenses by as much as 70%. This
company has tied up with IndUShealth, a US-based
medical-tourism startup, which has tie-ups with
Indian hospitals that provide the pleasure
trip-cum-medical treatment package. To entice
employees to travel all the way to India, Blue
Ridge offers not only to pay for all the treatment
and other expenses for the patient, but also to
pay the travel and lodging costs of an
accompanying family member. Moreover, the company
shares 25% of the savings with the employee.
According to Rajesh Rao, the chief
executive officer of IndUShealth, about a dozen US
companies are expected to follow Blue Ridge's
footsteps by the year's end.
health care in these hospitals is relatively more
expensive in local terms, it is much cheaper than
comparative care in developed countries. For
example, an open-heart surgery costs
$34,000-$70,000 in the United Kingdom, while in
the United States, routine open-heart surgery runs
as high as $150,000, and with complications
considerably more. In India, open-heart surgery
could cost $3,000-$10,000 in the best of
hospitals. The cost differential for other
treatments is anywhere from 200% to 800%.
This is not because Indian hospitals cut
corners on care, but simply because skilled labor
costs so much less, and a US dollar can buy so
much more in the country. According to the World
Bank, in terms of purchasing-power parity, a
dollar can buy five times as much in India as in
Not all, though, come for just the
cheaper treatment; many do not want to travel "all
the way to the far-off West", like James Flynn, an
Australian who needed a knee-replacement surgery a
few months back.
"I choose India not just
because it was cheaper, but my research told me
that India had a very high success rate compared
to other regions in Asia," Flynn said. "Moreover
it was not possible for me to travel to far off
countries like [the] US or Europe from Australia."
There are others besides Escort that offer the
"total facilitation services". The Apollo group of
hospitals, yet another health-care institution
that runs a series of top-notch hospitals in
India, and Ganga Ram Hospital have full-fledged
international patients departments to offer help
to patients from the moment they land in India
until departure. Several travel operators such as
Delhi-based Stic Care, Travelite India and
Kerala-based Great India Tour Co provide the
service of identifying the appropriate hospital to
travel bookings, accommodation, and even pre- and
post-treatment tour packages for foreign patients.
Dr Naresh Trehan, the erstwhile US-based
surgeon who moved back to India a few years ago to
open Escort, says he thinks India could well
emerge as a preferred global health-care
destination not only because of its low costs but
also for the quality of treatment it can provide.
"Besides, with mountains to [seaside]
beaches, deserts to [waterfalls], India offers
[it] all as one of the best tourist destinations
[in] the world. I think a medical-tourism package
that includes a tour of the country not only makes
their experience in India memorable, but also
helps in faster recovery."
But does this
form of medical tourism really improve healing?
Some scoff at the suggestion, saying that the
tourism bundling is just a new-found promotional
gimmick of some upmarket Indian hospitals to lure
international patients away from competing
countries such as Thailand and Singapore. But many
of those who have availed themselves of these
schemes swear by them.
operation I went and spent a few days in the
picturesque hills of Simla," near Delhi, said
James Flynn. "It was worth the while."
Indrajit Basu is a Kolkata-based
equity analyst turned journalist with more than 12
years of experience in business/finance and
technology journalism. Besides writing for Asia
Times Online, he also writes for US-based
publications, as well as IT companies.