New Delhi: Over 300 patients who arrived in India as medical tourists around March are stuck in the country due to the suspension of international flights and delayed evacuation procedures, ThePrint has learnt.
A majority of these patients are from the UAE, Fiji, Sudan, Oman, Nigeria and Thailand, according to the Foundation of Healthcare & Wellness Promotion (FHWP), a lobby of 60 medical tourism companies that operate across India and act as local guardians to these patients.
In May, the industry body claims to have sent around 55 patients back to their home countries. “With the help of Indian government and the high commission of their respective countries, we were able to send back these foreign patients,” said FHWP president Dalip Chopra.
“However, still, more than 300 such patients are stuck across India, mostly located in top metros such as Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai,” said Chopra.
Most of these patients arrived in early March and their treatment was completed by the end of the same month. India imposed a lockdown on 25 March to limit the spread of the Covid-19 infection.
ThePrint spoke to more than half a dozen of these patients over phone. According to them, they are currently living in rented spaces and are facing a host of issues: fast-depleting funds, communication problems due to language barrier, loneliness, concerns about health safety amid the Covid-19 outbreak, and the challenge of eating a good diet due to different taste palates.
‘Feeling physically and emotionally weak’
Abdullahi Sanny, a patient from Nigeria who came to India for a tumor removal procedure on 1 March, had the treatment done at Gurugram-based Artemis Hospital by 11 March. However, he couldn’t leave until 12 June, when he boarded the flight after facing multiple cancellations of planned evacuation.
“All the money I got from home has been exhausted and I am feeling physically and emotionally weak,” a weeping Sanny had told ThePrint over a call last week.
Several other patients who are still stuck here are facing multiple challenges.
Afila, a 46-year-old patient who came from Fiji for a total hip replacement at Delhi-based Venkateshwar Hospital said, “I came here to stay for only for a month, and now it’s over four months. I am stuck in a hotel room with depleting savings.
“I am unable to afford good food also due to sinking savings. My family has been sending financial help but due to higher conversion rates, I eventually get a lesser amount left in my hand,” added Afila.
Krongsapp Manitasawa, a 37-year-old who came to India from Thailand for a surgical procedure called adenomyosis at Gurugram’s Max Hospital, said, “I don’t have any money left and I don’t know when I will go home back. I am also concerned about my health safety.”
Elgezouli Elnour, a 25-year-old resident of Sudan, came for surgery in April 2020. “I came for my ear’s surgery and have been stuck since last three months. Now, I have finished all my money. My medical tourism company is helping me to find ways to get back to my country and providing the financial support.”
Hospitals see influx of foreign patients dry up
According to data from the Ministry of Tourism, India ranked as the third most popular medical tourism destination in 2015 when the industry was worth $3 billion and nearly 2.34 lakh patients arrived for treatment.
By 2017, the number of arrivals had gone up to 4.95 lakh and India’s medical tourism industry was pegged to grow by 200 per cent by 2020, hitting $9 billion (around Rs 68,000 crore).
However, 2020 has dealt a massive blow to the industry reducing revenues to nil.
Medical tourists arrive in India to get treatment at the country’s best hospitals. For instance, at Max Healthcare, approximately 5,000 international patients arrived every month in 2019-20 in its outpatient department (OPD) and nearly 1,000 patients came per month for in-patients.
“We have been growing a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 15 per cent for the last 5 years. After the government decided to stop visas for all foreigners visiting India (during lockdown), the number of patients have steadily declined to zero as on date,” said Anas Abdul Wajid, senior director and chief sales and marketing officer, Max Healthcare, Gurugram.
“In the light of the pandemic, the restrictions are of course justified. However, the International medical travel business has come to a grinding halt,” he said, adding that the hospital’s average revenue loss is estimated to be Rs 40 crore per month.
“We at Max Healthcare are staying in constant touch with our patients who are still in the country and are trying our best to ensure that they stay safe and well looked after,” added Wajid.
Hit to industry
The medical tourism operators are feeling the pinch too.
““The revenue loss to the Medical Value Tourism (MVT) industry due to the novel Corona is estimated at almost $1 billion (Rs 7,600 crore) if the corona conditions persist across the world for 6 months,” said Amit Sharma, founder and chief executive of medical tourism firm eExpedise Healthcare.
“This is equivalent to the revenue we would have generated over eight months if our business had progressed at the usual pace, without the unusual disruption caused by Covid-19. Most of this amount would have gone towards salaries and maintenance of our international offices, that generate patient flow to India,” Sharma said.
Vinay Aggarwal, managing director of operator Shinon Global, said that “in the next couple of months, it won’t be a surprise if many MVT companies go bankrupt and have to shut shop completely”.
The industry has been urging the government for financial stimulus and support. “In absence of this, the industry will not survive, resulting in immense foreseen and unforeseen forex losses, losses on account of widespread jobs and losses of multi-billion dollar inflow opportunities in the near future,” Sharma said.
He added that the industry is also trying to initiate dialogue with the government to “reduce restrictions on international patients coming to India as soon as possible, with adequate measures to ensure such patients don’t spread Covid-19”.