Govt norms hurting medical tourism

Govt norms hurting medical tourism

Chennai: Even as India seeks to compete for medical tourists—those who visit the country for surgical and other procedures—some providers are blaming tough immigration norms for dampening the industry.

Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd, the country’s leading hospital chain, and Chennai-based MIOT Hospitals Ltd say their resources are being diverted to deal with paperwork for foreign patients undergoing treatment in their hospitals, including processing of medical visas, registration of such tourists and longer screening processes for certain nationalities.

“The procedural issues are affecting our work," says Mallika Mohandas, chairman of MIOT Hospitals, a multi-specialty hospital.

The Bureau of Immigration, a government body that oversees immigration and registration activities, requires medical tourists travelling to India to register themselves within 14 days of arrival with the foreigners regional registration officers.

“The immigration authorities require international patients to visit their office for registration and in some cases it is very difficult as they are in a condition where they cannot move," says Galal Ahmed Dawood, overseas coordinator at MIOT, which handles 50 foreign patients every month.

As most medical tourists don’t have working knowledge of English, hospital staff have to accompany the patients for registering and also for collecting registration certificates.

“They insist on patients coming to collect registration certificates even if we volunteer to send our people to collect on patients’ behalf," claims Dawood.

The laws related to visa processing for medical tourists need to be revisited to make them more customer friendly, says George Eapen, chief executive officer of Apollo Hospitals (South). The Chennai facility of Apollo alone handles around 3,000 international patients from about 55 countries.

An immigration official, on condition of anonymity, maintains that according to the rules, the bureau can process the registration formalities only on seeing the patients from foreign countries.

“Delay could be because of incomplete or insufficient documents produced by medical tourists. There are no delays from our side in processing the formalities," the official insists.

A CII-McKinsey report on the health-care industry has estimated that medical tourism generated $333 million (Rs1,452 crore then) in revenues with 100,000 such patients visiting various Indian hospitals in 2005, a 10-fold increase in five years. The study predicted that medical tourism would grow to $2 billion by 2012 at those growth rates.

One suggestion that the hospitals make is to open registration counters at major airports,?which?could?make things easier for tourists travelling to India for medical treatment.

Hospitals cite Thailand, India’s biggest rival in medical tourism, as an example for attracting medical tourists. Medical visas are processed within three hours of applying in that country, whereas the same process takes 10 days for those travelling to India, according to Apollo Hospitals.

Chairman of Chennai-based Lifeline Hospitals, a mid-sized multi-speciality hospital, Dr J.S. Rajkumar, says security checks of patients from Sri Lanka take a relatively longer time than for patients from other countries. “This could be due to security reasons, but it is definitely causing great delay in treatment," he adds.