Chennai: Eighteen-year-old British teenager Rebecca Teji has a reason to smile.
She’s finally got a ceramic laminate to cover her chalky incisors thanks to a week-long treatment at a dental clinic in Chennai a few days after she flew down to her grandfather’s hometown in search of a cost-effective solution for her crumbling teeth.
“I am going to university next year and this will make me so much more confident,” says Teji, who was one of the eight foreign patients out of the total 10 people waiting at the reception of Acharya Dental Clinic.
Growing market: The building that houses Chennai dental service provider VV Dentistree. Dental clinics hope patients seeking an oral overhaul will find it viable to travel to India.
It cost Teji close to Rs10,000 for each laminate but that is still a fraction of the costs she may have incurred in the UK.
Indian cities such as Chennai have been widely popular among foreigners for its relatively low-cost heart and eye surgeries. It waits to be seen if the market for dental tourism is ripe yet.
“We are one-fourth the cost of similar procedures in the UK and America and you can get everything done under one roof within the stipulated period of time,” says Vijailakshmi Acharya of Acharya Dental who has a 12-room, two-storeyed set up in central Chennai with a staff of 60 people.
A 2008 US survey by audit firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu found that 40% of US respondents were willing to travel abroad for treatment if the quality was comparable and savings were 50% or more. India had nearly 450,000 medical visitors last year and average medical costs were at 20% of that in the US, the report showed.
“India has good medical infrastructure and is also culturally more amenable to having guests who can be treated,” says consultant P.R. Srinivas of Deloitte. “The waiting time for patients is also far less than in some developed countries.”
Such reports have motivated a five-clinic Chennai dental service provider VV Dentistree India Pvt. Ltd to seek debt and capital infusion of Rs10 crore from Malaysian healthcare group Qualitas Medical Group Ltd. Dentistree sold a 40% stake to Qualitas and plans to invest Rs12 crore to set up hospitals and clinics in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kochi by early 2011.
Still, not everyone is as bullish about the prospects of dental tourism.
Some analysts say that while a cosmetic or hip-replacement surgery in India may be economical for a foreigner even if air ticket and accommodation costs are included, the same may not be the case for dental care. That is probably why some healthcare providers in India, such as Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd, catering to foreign heart patients, include dental care as part of the package and do not promote it exclusively.
“It (dental care) is not a revenue generating area in hospitals and is usually added to show its customers that they are providing an entire gamut of services,” says analyst Prateek Jain of research firm Frost and Sullivan.
But Indian dental clinics are hoping patients seeking an oral overhaul, and not merely low-value services such as teeth cleaning, will find it viable to travel to India.
“Nearly 80% of our revenues will hopefully come from 20% of our customers—foreigners and non-resident Indians—who come in to do bulk dentistry, which means getting implants and other detailed procedures done,” says V. Vijaykumar, chief executive of VV Dentistree who estimates dental tourists to comprise 1-2% of medical visitors to India.
Within five years, Dentistree wants to have a national presence and also intends to spread its wings overseas in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Dr Acharya, who has just one clinic and is popular with the expatriate population in Chennai, has been hesitant to expand as each clinic would require experienced doctors and support staff as well as equipment. Then there’s also maintenance—a patient’s chair at a dentist’s clinic needs to be replaced every five years.
Thailand gets nearly three times as many medical tourists as India even though it has just half as many internationally accredited hospitals, and the service cost is higher, at 30% of US healthcare rates, the Deloitte report said.
“Thailand has organized better and its tourism authority identified medical tourism earlier,” says Deloitte’s Srinivas. “In India, the numbers are still too low to register on any scale but there’s a lot of hype and attention.”