Traditionally, India responds to the medical needs of citizens all over the world with very well structured and affordable medical service and care. In the ‘medical tourism’ industry, India has been a reliable destination hub for over a decade now. Many foreign medical tourists come to India every year for affordable medical treatment. Most of the influx of demand usually comes from countries in Eastern Europe, West Asia and Africa, compared to countries like the United States, Canada, Norway and Switzerland. According to the India Tourism Statistics at a Glance 2020 1 report, around 697,300 foreign tourists came for medical treatment to India in fiscal year 2019. India was ranked 10th in the Medical Tourism Index (MTI) for 2020-21 on 46 destinations by the Medical Tourism Association.
The various factors that attract medical tourists to India are high quality treatment, low cost English speaking medical staff and the M-Visa introduced by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). At the same time, medical tourism has shortcomings, such as tracking issues, lack of transparency, etc. Technology can play a crucial role in meeting these challenges. The Indian government is working on a flagship digital initiative – Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM), which is a national digital health ecosystem that supports universal health coverage in an efficient, accessible, inclusive, affordable, timely and safe way. A unique health identifier for each patient, healthcare professional and healthcare facility will be created through this initiative. Patient Electronic Health Records (EHRs) will be stored digitally with respective healthcare providers like hospitals and can be shared with other providers after patient consent. All ABDM building blocks and components comply with open standards, interoperable, and based on open source software products and open source development, and ensure the security, privacy and confidentiality of personal health-related information.
ABDM can benefit overseas patients and will boost medical tourism to India. First of all, the platform can allow access to the medical file of the surgical patient, facilitating post-operative follow-ups. Second, since all the details of the treatment and surgery will be stored digitally, it will bring more transparency to overseas patients and more accountability for healthcare providers. Third, since AYUSH’s doctors and hospitals are part of ABDM, so it will facilitate the provision of wellness facilities across the country for recovery, leading to rapid recovery. Thus, ABDM will have the potential to allow potential patients to visit any hospital and accredited wellness center in the country for a check-up. Fourth, with the help of ABDM technology and the data ecosystem, an interactive dashboard loaded with aggregated data from ABDM can do wonders in finding prices for the right treatment for the potential foreign patient. Most foreign medical tourists arrive from low to middle income countries in Africa and Asia. Such a price discovery based on treatment and by region, coupled with information on treatment success rates at different hospitals, can catapult a further influx of price-sensitive foreign medical tourists to India. Finally, after the surgery, the ABDM will allow foreign patients, especially minor treatments, to explore scenic places in India without missing the regular follow-up. Such a regular monitoring mechanism will ensure consumer loyalty to Indian medical tourism, thereby making the foreign medical tourist want to return to India to seek further diagnoses and prognoses for future medical treatments. post-recovery treatment at some of the well-appointed wellness centers in India can cater to a much larger segment of overseas customers, including price-insensitive high-end customers from developed economies through collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism , allowing them to explore spiritual and natural richness as a component of post-treatment recovery.
The draft National Strategy and Roadmap for Medical and Wellness Tourism recently released by the Ministry of Tourism highlighted the main drivers of medical travel, such as âaffordability and accessibility of good health services “, availability of the latest medical technology and accreditations”, and “minimal wait times”. ABDM, with its technology and data ecosystem, will be able to complement these key drivers to drive a data driven paradigm for ‘travel with medical value’ to India and increase the attendance of foreign medical tourists. In addition, the strategy document also stresses the need to create âregistration of medical service providersâ and âtransparency of clinical rates and outcomes by service providersâ to provide âcorrectâ and âcompleteâ information via a “Portal”. ABDM, with its national digital health ecosystem of features and functionality, provides the perfect launch pad to build a framework aligned with the major drivers.
India is already well positioned in the field of medical tourism and has enormous potential to move from 10th in the world on the Medical Tourism Index to first in technological and data-related interventions. Therefore, promoting medical tourism through ABDM’s âuniversal health coverageâ may be a priority area for the government. Better functionality and more streamlined processes for boarding foreign medical tourists can be developed in the ABDM ecosystem to increase their share in India. No other country with a high percentage of medical tourism has a similar system. ABDM can give India a distinct advantage and a unique window to attract foreign tourists to India for their treatment and post-operative well-being.
Saurabh Thukral is Senior Specialist and Sabyasachi Upadhyay is Partner at NITI Aayog.
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