By Devasis Sarangi
For all its explosive economic growth over the past decade, life in Odisha remains – for the vast majority of its people – extremely difficult. Nowhere is that more clear than in its health and development indicators.
The challenge is really BIG because healthcare delivery in Odisha is not optimal at the moment, because of the massive scale and poor delivery to the masses. All our indices of healthcare are abysmal, from infant mortality rate to maternal mortality rate – they need improvement to meet the standards at least of the south-east Asian region, if not [those] of the rest of the world.
Low-cost healthcare solutions are important because illness drives several Odias into bankruptcy each year. According to a leading survey, 40 per cent who are hospitalized have to borrow money to cover costs, while 23 per cent of those ill simply never seek medical care!!!
With such problems, you may think I am joking when I say that Bhubaneswar is capable of becoming a destination for “medical value travel” and a healthcare hub.
But, I was myself taken by surprise, when my cousin brother working in Australia waited for his vacation to Bhubaneswar, to get his dental surgery done considering his wife was a dentist in Australia!!! I knew Medical Value Travel had arrived in Bhubaneswar!!! One reason obviously was exorbitant costs for the complicated dental surgery abroad.
Medical care is something that is very stressful and people consider this under tremendous pressure. It is an event where people are scared of losing their lives. It may not be appropriate to call it tourism. Tourism is a different business altogether and I have dealt with this topic earlier in my articles. The tourism component is weak and is only physical therapy, recuperation and rejuvenating component. Most foreign patients come for chronic and serious medical treatment and so it would be appropriate to call it “medical value travel” which essentially need highly skilled doctors and medical infrastructure and not mere minor treatments of simple dental work, cosmetic surgery or wellness &yoga which can be coupled with holidays, as the term ‘medical tourism’ implies.
Fortunately reputed healthcare solution providers have cropped up across the city over the past decade. Bhubaneswar now boasts of an AIIMS, a leading teaching hospital; Apollo for tertiary care in all key specialties, LV Prasad Eye Institute, a leading eye care solutions provider, Hemalatha, a leading cancer solution provider, Care Hospital, a leading cardiac solution provider, Kalinga Hospital, a leading nephrology, neurology, orthopedics and cardiac solution provider. In the offing is a long chain of reputed hospitals like Narayana Hrudalaya, Asian Heart Institute to name a few who have made their mark in providing medical value travel especially in the cardiac solution offerings. Also planned is a Health City on the outskirts of Bhubanewar which is at the conceptual stage for medical value travel.
This infusion of low-cost, high-quality, and often decentralized solutions has improved the health and lives of millions, and can now be exported to other developing countries and other states.
Skyrocketing costs of healthcare in many western countries, along with overloaded medical facilities in many others can add great attraction to Bhubaneswar’s high quality low cost medical service industry. For example, surgery in Bhubaneswar’s best private hospitals is often one tenth the cost of the same procedure, than if performed in the United States. Then what is stopping Bhubaneswar from becoming a healthcare hub?
My research as to what has made Bangkok, in Thailand; a healthcare hub and medical tourism specialist reveals, in addition to the cost saving, there is also the added benefit that treatment and aftercare services are often performed in resort like settings, with a level of hospitality not found in other parts of the world’s medical centers. Doctors are experts in their fields and nurses are registered and well trained. But beyond the medical attraction, patients are treated to personal service characterized by Thailand’s excellence. Patients are not left to linger in hospital waiting rooms for hours, left unattended and uninformed. Some hospitals will even assign patients a personal assistant who will walk them through the entire process from the front door, to their appointment with the doctor, to the onsite pharmacy to fill prescriptions, and to clearing all receipts for insurance reimbursement. Patients are kept informed throughout their stay. In fact one of Bangkok’s premier hospital facilities boasts a staff of doctors that can speak English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hainan, Arabic, Urdu and others, and has 60 interpreters on its staff. While another has interpreters in over two dozen languages, all in order to facilitate the increasing numbers of international patients. And many of the country’s hospitals have the most advanced medical equipment.
If our government really wants medical value travel to take-off in Odisha, it will have to develop clean and green destinations for patients to recuperate from surgeries and which are easily accessible from these hospitals. To promote medical value travel, the government needs to bring out a Medical Value Travel Policy; set up an independent Medical Value Travel Council. Once this is in place, the health and tourism department can join hands to offer pick-up service, bringing them to hospitals and then club it with an post-care treatment at a nearby tourist destination which is clean, green and easily accessible from the hospital.
International patients and competition will drive hospitals to improve levels of hygiene, standardize treatment procedures and make pricing more transparent. Today, patients are seldom given explanations for the variety of charges, surcharges and service charges on hospital and doctor bills. Diagnostic and treatment protocol can be even more arbitrary. International competition and overseas patients, supported by global insurance companies will increase medical accountability in Odisha and this will spill out of the confines of the plush Hospital and eventually benefit patients in Odisha’s more-humble hospitals, too.
The key requirement is that the hospitals need to be accredited either by Joint Commission International (JCI) or national board for accreditation of hospitals and healthcare (NABH) and follow international safety standards. Most Apollo Hospitals in the country are already JCI accredited and it may not be difficult for its Bhubaneswar branch to get the certification, if pursued.
Other important requirements are an International Airport so that they can directly fly-in, interpreters at Hospitals and most importantly, after care solutions so that the patient can recuperate and rejuvenate.
Thailand, which revolutionized medical tourism, is more into cosmetic surgery; Odisha should focuses on cardiac, nephrology, neurology or orthopaedic treatments of international patients to start with. Initially international patients will come from the neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal and then from Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union and Africa. But now once Odisha proves itself as a credible provider of value health care, the western population ageing, and with health care becoming more difficult there; more people will come from the U.S. and the U.K. as well.
Unlike business process outsourcing (BPO), which is on the whole very low-tech, healthcare - particularly sophisticated procedures - is very high-tech. Odisha has not been able to set up an adequate healthcare infrastructure for its own citizens and it doesn’t have the money to do so. Creation of a sophisticated “medical value travel” structure, in Bhubaneswar, will have a trickle-down effect and augur well in the long run for its own people as well.
(The author is a Core Committee member of Invest Bhubaneswar and is championing the effort to help Bhubaneswar Airport attain International status. He is a member of TiE Bhubaneswar and an active Life Member of INTACH, Bhubaneswar chapter. The views expressed are his personal and do not represent the organizations he represents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)