Could Medical Tourism to India Bridge Healthcare Inequality?


SEATTLE — With rising medical costs plaguing the fractured healthcare systems of the United States and Europe, medical tourism to India has increased steadily over the last 15 years. Americans, Europeans and people from all over the globe are foregoing high medical price tags within their domestic healthcare systems and opting to seek medical treatment in Indian hospitals, ranging from facelifts to coronary bypass surgery at a fraction of the cost.

Treatments that cost upwards of $50,000 in the United States can be performed in India for as little as $10,000, including travel and lodging expenses. Each year, approximately 300,000 medical tourists from the United States alone visit Indian hospitals for surgical procedures, including life-saving cardiac surgeries. These numbers are expected to rise as Western populations age and health costs continue to increase.

The boom of the medical tourism industry has spurred immense growth in healthcare infrastructure in India. Private medical corporations have expanded their facilities, technologies and staff to accommodate the influx of foreigners, even including special travel and immigration counters equipped with translators. Medical tourism in India has also pushed hospitals to meet international accreditation standards in order to assure patients of the quality of their facilities.

The market for medical tourism in India is a growing source of national revenue. The market itself is valued at approximately $4 billion, with some individual private corporations earning up to $400,000 per year.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of medical tourism is the trend of reverse brain drain in India. Indian doctors have traditionally been drawn to the West to receive the best medical training and boost their earnings. With tougher healthcare regulations and tightening salaries in Western countries, Indian emigrant doctors are returning home to reap the benefits of medical tourism to India. The reversal of medical brain drain means more highly trained doctors and advanced technologies in Indian hospitals.

Although the trend of medical tourism to India reflects the decline of Western healthcare systems, India’s healthcare system has its own share of problems. Medical tourists exclusively utilize India’s well-regarded private institutions. But the reality is that India has one of the most unequal healthcare systems in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, public hospitals are underfunded, overburdened and utterly deficient, benefiting little from medical tourism.

Government funding for public healthcare institutions accounts for approximately 1.4 percent of India’s public GDP expenditures, ranking the 15th lowest in the world. In comparison, medical tourism to India is a multi-billion-dollar industry yet still receives the government’s financial support.

Much of India’s poor population often cannot access basic healthcare, and 86 percent of the rural population lacks health insurance. Public hospitals in rural areas have shortages of space, basic equipment and attentive staff, often leading to needless deaths and medical malpractice.

The gap between public and private institutions is exacerbated by the grossly unequal distribution of doctors between rural and urban areas. Approximately 80 percent of India’s doctors work in cities serving 28 percent of the total population, while only about 18.8 percent of doctors working in rural areas actually have medical credentials.

There is an enormous rural-urban and rich-poor divide within India’s incomplete healthcare system. The poor currently do not benefit from medical tourism to India. However, conditions in rural public hospitals could be immensely improved with effective redistribution mechanisms that could effectively transfer wealth, resources and medical personnel to serve India’s most vulnerable populations.

– Sydney Lacey

Photo: Flickr


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