As the cost of healthcare continues to rise, many citizens and residents are in a continuous search for destinations outside the country where they can receive quality healthcare at a much lower rate. In 2016, over 11 million travellers left the shores of the US in search of different countries around the world seeking affordable healthcare. In a recent report by Visa and Oxford Economics, it was stated that this figure will grow by up to 25% every year for the next decade as the competition for health tourists between countries have becomes fiercer. In last quarter century, India has grown as a prominent exporter of speciality health services in the world. India is known globally for its low cost and high quality medical services. It offers wide variety of procedures at about one-tenth the cost of similar procedures in the United States.
Talking about India, North-East India has gradually started to makes its footprints visible in the global arena of medical tourism. North-East has a distinct advantage over the rest of the country in terms of language where English is easily a common medium of communication and also because of its geographical proximity to the neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal. In the BBIN sub-region, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal depend on India for speciality health services. A large number of patients from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh come to India for health treatment. In 2013, a total of 56,129 people came to India on medical visas, of which 9,482 were from Afghanistan, 17,814 from Bangladesh, 1,090 from Pakistan (Data source – Ministry of Tourism, Government of India). Most of these patients have been treated in hospitals located in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi.
However, when it comes to this part of the country, North-East India is well blessed by Nature. It has rich cultural heritage and exotic presence of flora and fauna. Besides having spectacular biodiversity, wildlife, snow-capped mountains, tropical forests, shrines of diverse religions, and prominent archaeological sites, North-East India provides an immense opportunity for medical tourism. Its weather along with tourism can help the region to become an important medical tourism destination. Not only medical treatment in North-East can add a new dimension to the healthcare industry but also can help contribute to the economy of the region.
Healthcare facilities in North-East have improved tremendously in the past few years. In the last few months, several prominent hospital chains have opened branches in Guwahati such as Narayana Super-speciality Hospital, Apollo Hospitals, Ayursundra Hospital, Sri Sankar Nethralaya, etc. and several others such as Fortis, Infinity, etc. are planning to set up the same. Guwahati has already started getting patients from Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. Shija Hospitals and Research Institute in Imphal has been treating patients from Myanmar. Sonapur area in the outskirts of Guwahati municipality is again a prime destination both for health providers as well as the recipients of the services. Its geographical proximity and similarity to neighbouring Meghalaya makes it an ideal location for a hospital setup. Not only does the people of the area need a help service facility at the earliest, but also the terrain is strategically located by giving easy connectivity amongst Upper Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Shillong. Also the fact that in spite of its proximity to nearby Guwahati, the temperature is almost 2 degrees less which again makes it an ideal situation for the ailing patients. A one of its kind Kidney hospital exclusively dedicated to urological services is coming up in that area where the patients can feel relaxed amidst the calm and serene atmosphere.
India is one of the key players in the medical tourism industry as it strives to provide health care services with cutting-edge technology. Healthcare in India saves patients in between 65% to 90% of money compared to the cost of similar services in the US, making India one of the most visited countries for health care. Patients visit India not only for the quality and affordability of healthcare service but also for the beautiful scenery and architecture in India’s landscape. In India, medical travel brings a mix of pleasure, luxury, and quality healthcare for medical travellers. When it comes to travelling amidst natural beauty, no other place in India can surpass North-East.
The government in its part is also exploring ways and means to promote North-East as a commercial hub and its pro-industrialization image is reflected in events such as Advantage Assam and the more recently concluded Indo-Bangladesh stakeholder’s meet which is again a part of the Act East policy. Assam Industry and Commerce Minister Chandra Mohan Patwary while replying to a question by AGP legislator, Pabindra Deka in state assembly stated, “A total of 207 Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) have been signed during the Advantage Assam summit. Apart from this another 34 investors have also expressed their interest to invest in Assam and submitted proposals to the Industry and Commerce department.” He further went onto state that the summit has attracted investment worth Rs 8020.21 crore. Well, this so far is a great news in itself which not only can boost medical tourism but also can create other economic avenues. Having said so, a number of steps in this regard would ease out the hurdles. First, financial transaction particularly payment of fees from origin countries (e.g. Bangladesh) to India is a major barrier, which not only generate informal payment but also reduces the revenue for government. BBIN countries may take steps to facilitate region-wise e-transaction for medical payment purpose. At the same time, strengthening banking networks between the countries would ease the burdens on patients aiming to get treated in India. Guwahati is yet to have branches of banks of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal and vice versa. Secondly, air connectivity between the countries should be upgraded. Recently started Guwahati-Dhaka flight services had to be aborted for commercial reasons. Thirdly, all neighbouring countries should have health information centres which could educate the patients about the facilities in North-East, at the same time aid them for smoother process. Fourthly, all the major towns in North-East should have a proper medical college which will not only improve the skill set but also help in employment generation. North-East India is gaining attraction of foreign and domestic investors under the Act East Policy. Medical tourism has the potential to bring huge investment in Northeast India and generate jobs. It is therefore imperative to showcase the potential that we have, not only in terms of healthcare but nature’s care as well. As has been aptly said by one of the leading urologist of North-East Dr Arup Kumar Nath, “We care but heals nature”.