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Medical Tourism in India Criticized for Draining Resources

Stakeholders in the Indian healthcare system contend that the government has been drawing foreign tourists to India for medical procedures at the expense of adequately funding the public health system. In an article published in the British Medical Journal in November, a doctor and an activist wrote that India is among the top 20 countries in private healthcare expenditure. However, they wrote, the nation spends only 1% of its GDP on public healthcare, a striking figure for a country with one of the world’s largest numbers of poor people.

The Ministry of Tourism recently announced renewed efforts to promote medical tourism as part of plans to make tourism the country’s top source of foreign revenue in the next three years. The promotion will include expansion of what Tourism Minister Renuka Chowdhury called “state-of-the-art infrastructure and technology” in a recent interview with the Press Trust of India. The government also recently introduced a “medical visa,” which allows a foreign patient to spend up to three years in India for treatment.

The appeal of medical tourism to foreigners is twofold. Wealthy residents of poor countries where complex medical procedures aren’t available go to India for access to well-trained physicians and recently-developed technology. But patients from regions with high medical standards, such as the United States and Europe, can often get the same procedures done far more cheaply in India than at home.

Tourism officials justify the focus on medical tourism by pointing out that it stimulates economic growth in India, making life better for many Indians. But doctors and activists counter that the improvement of private healthcare services has reduced public healthcare capacity in some quarters. Increasing availability of private services puts pressure on resources, staff and prices, they argue, causing many Indians to have to pay a premium for ostensibly standard services, such as clean hospital bed linens.

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