Medical tourism to India has created opportunities for some travel agents. // © 2011 Jacob Wackerhausen
Good healthcare and the rising costs associated with it are among the hottest topics these days in the halls of Congress, in statehouses and over the dinner table in homes throughout the U.S. But now, it's also a subject of keen interest to travel agents and, especially, those who are familiar with India. That's because India has become a leading international destination for what is commonly referred to as "medical tourism."
Over the years, Indian medical professionals have achieved world-class status; many boast advanced training in top medical centers in the U.S. and U.K., and many are board-certified in their specialties. They are supported by a network of privately run hospitals and associated medical institutes throughout India practicing the most advanced procedures.
Along with professional skill and a high level of patient care, India offers striking savings, with fees that are 50 to 70 percent less than those in the U.S. As a result, many Americans seeking such elective procedures as cosmetic surgery or implants head for India. And when it comes to a hip or knee replacement -- or even some major heart procedures -- some insurance companies will gladly work with, or even reimburse, policy holders who have their procedures done at a substantial savings in India.Marketing Medical Tourism
Companion Global Healthcare of Columbia, S.C., is one company marketing medical tourism. It has a network of 31 accredited hospitals overseas, of which the largest number, seven, are in India. The company claims that patients treated at these facilities can save up to 80 percent off U.S. hospital charges. For example, according to Companion Global Healthcare, a hip replacement in the U.S. could cost approximately $100,000, but the same procedure would cost between $7,000 and $9,000 in India. A hysterectomy in the U.S. might cost $32,000; at the Wockhardt Hospital in Mumbai, the cost would range from $2,500 to $5,000.
Companion Global Healthcare can make all arrangements for U.S. patients seeking treatment at its designated facilities, including making appointments, transferring medical records, setting up pre-trip interviews between patients and doctors and making travel and lodging arrangements. For those travel arrangements, Companion Global Healthcare has signed on with Well-Being Travel, based in Long Island, N.Y., as its preferred vendor. A spokesman for Companion Global Healthcare said that since Well-Being Travel specializes in accommodating medical travelers, it will know, for example, that a patient who just had knee surgery will need extra legroom on the flight home or a handicapped-accessible hotel room during a post-operation stay.
Travel agents who regularly book their clients on leisure or business trips to India are certainly aware of the growth in medical tourism and may wonder how they can get involved. However, other experts in the field suggest that agents should be extremely cautious about recommending hospitals and medical specialists abroad.
That's the view of Mark Sood, CEO of A Classic Tours Collection in Redondo Beach, Calif. His agency has clients going to India for medical services, but he is careful to leave the actual medical decisions up to insurance companies and patients entirely. Sood's staffers typically take care of the air travel and transfers for patients and their accompanying family members, booked accommodations in India and booked domestic travel, as well as post-operative care when required.
"We feel there are two separate activities involved. The medical part in India is best left to specialists there while we make all the normal travel arrangements," said Sood. "We're very comfortable doing that, but we prefer not to be involved in any decisions regarding the choice of hospitals or other purely medical matters."
Steve Alexis with Universal Travel System (UTS) in Santa Monica, Calif., agreed.
"Most agents and tour operators are reluctant to get directly involved with medical tourism. Many legal issues haven't been resolved, and the potential for liability is greater than selling conventional tours," Alexis said.
Agents with clients interested in traveling to India for medical services might suggest they contact the nonprofit Indian Medical Tourism Association (IMTA) based in New Delhi. One of its primary goals is to help member hospitals market their services to prospective patients living outside India who would like to take advantage of the country's inexpensive medical procedures.