Ideas & Debate

India’s medical tourism is running on ‘steroids’


Medical tourism concept. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Two years ago, I wrote in this column about a visit I had just made to a private hospital in New Delhi, India. “Medical tourism on steroids” is what I called it. I said hospital charged $180 for a full body checkup which included consultations with a physician, cardiologist, gynaecologists (for ladies), mammograms, ultrasounds, ECG tests, blood work testing everything your work weary, calorie consuming body has endured in the recent past etc.

Early this year, I chose to visit their mother hospital in Chennai. They have a snazzy, air conditioned and carpeted Platinum Health Lounge which does the same checkup for the eye watering amount of $500. Please apply sarcasm font as you read that amount as I’ve paid half that for the same kind of blood work only here in our leafy, tree lined capital city. The interesting part was each doctor I encountered was very familiar with Kenya, rattling of a whole host of names from the political elite (so much for client confidentiality) as being their regular patients.

We took the cheapest transport to the hospital, tuk tuks, driven in part by barefoot drivers, all of whom preferred to tuck either their left or right legs under their backsides as they zipped in and out of the frenetic traffic. The tuk tuks are all personalised to reflect the driver’s preferences, some had pictures of their preferred deities while our favourite guy had a mini-herb gardens growing on his dashboard. The hospital arranged our transfer from the airport and made the patient on boarding fairly easy. But the ease of booking the checkups was made even easier by the online visa application.

Two years ago, one had to go to the Indian High Commission in downtown Nairobi and produce a letter from a Kenyan doctor justifying why going to India for medical treatment was necessary. This time, everything was done online, with a visa produced within 48 hours of application. Clearly demand for medical visas had warranted a smoother and less document demanding process. The Platinum Lounge was located in an annex 200 metres from the main hospital and the building housed different floors with all the medical equipment that one required for specialised testing thereby negating the need to go to the extremely busy main hospital.

The interesting thing that I observed on this particular trip, as I’ve made quite a number to this location, is that the hospital’s financial model has morphed to accommodate the different financial capacities of their patients. In the past, the pricing was flat and everyone paid the same amount for in-patient hospital services. Today, one pays according to the bed choice. A patient in the general ward, a patient in a shared private room and a patient in a singular private room will pay different amounts, with the latter paying an escalated amount in tandem with the perception that their choice of privacy is reflective of their wallet capacity. This is where the costs of this particular Indian hospital started to look alarmingly like its Kenyan counterparts, albeit still cheaper from a specialist doctor perspective.

My conclusion is that the Indian hospital in question had finally cottoned on to the fact that the foreign demand for its services would not be muted if it raised its prices as patients sought and continued to seek highly experienced and technologically superior medical services. Add to that the fact that the hotel and serviced apartments costs are way cheaper than their Kenyan equivalents and you have the perfect conditions for the booming $9 billion medical tourism industry, according to a CNN Health report. According to that report India was ranked the third most popular destination for medical tourism in 2015, registering 234,000 medical visas that year. By 2017, the report states that the number of arrivals had more than doubled to 495,056.

No surprises as to which African countries registered in the top ten: Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania, with Kenya being the top African country sending medical tourists in 2017. Based on social media chatter about the quality of private healthcare in Kenya currently, what with misdiagnosis, unnecessary admissions and deliberate delays in discharge, I can only imagine that the number of Kenyan medical tourists will only grow.

Here lies the paradox: instead of driving for a better public health system, and a more robust oversight of medical practitioners, many of our political elite are making their way to pay thousands of rupees for medical treatment. Because in Kenya, we always find private solutions to public problems. It’s a full time job being a Kenyan, someone once tweeted.