In December, however, thanks to Elliot, and other high-profile visits arranged by their start-up, Taj Medical Group, they were able to send 27. Most private hospitals saw a marked upward trend in western arrivals last year, most of them from the UK, US and Canada.

Vishal Bali, CEO of the Wockhardt Hospitals group, told Outlook that from the second half of 2004 and through 2005, the number of western patients went up to between 8 to 10 per cent, from the 1 to 2 per cent that it had been previously. The Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre (ehirc) in Delhi said that of over 1,500 foreign patients received last year, about 700 were from non-SAARC countries, including the US, UK, CIS, and the Gulf, a significant change from previous years.

Western TV crews accompanied elderly people to India, filmed them in high-tech hospitals.

ndividual doctors are seeing the difference, too. Dr Mohan Thomas, a Mumbai and Goa-based cosmetic surgeon, says his practice got 1,200 international patients last year, double the number from the previous year.

The Apollo Group saw an overall five per cent increase in the number of western medical tourists, according to executive director (finance) Sunita Reddy, despite no special effort to market to them. But at Apollo's flagship Delhi hospital, which gets more medical tourists than its other hospitals, the arrivals from some countries seem to have doubled. For example, it got around 80 American patients from April to November last year, more than the entire number in the previous financial year.

Many of those mouse-clicking their way to a hospital bed in India are escapees from western medical crises: whether it's waiting lists for complicated elective surgeries in the UK and Canada, which can't deliver the free healthcare they promise; or the uninsured and under-insured in the US, where medical treatment is extortionately expensive.

The patients in the brochure are white and middle-aged, not the harried ones from SAARC nations.

Any international marketing executive—and every upmarket private hospital now has one—can recite the numbers in her sleep: 8,50,000 waiting for a hospital bed in the UK, 45-million plus uninsured in the US.

Medical value-travellers, as hospitals like to call them, are also people looking for body shapes that insurance companies won't pay for and dreams that even efficient public healthcare systems won't deliver, like those of the 5 feet 4 tall Frenchman who recently came to India for a leg-lengthening operation. Many are also in quest of treatments not available at home, like hip resurfacing, less radical than hip replacement, but yet to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Marlene and Paul Smith; Canadian
Treatment: Spinal fusion surgery 
"Much of Marlene’s pre-operative pain has gone. We’re 100 per cent satisfied. We paid $19,000, including airfare. In the US, the metal alone for her back would have cost $40,000."

EHIRC's chief surgeon Dr Naresh Trehan recently operated on an 83-year old Canadian cardiac patient who needed a valve replacement with a bypass, but had been turned down by doctors back home. "No doctor was willing to do it for him. It's my specialisation, patients with 10 or 20 per cent heart function. I told him the risk was less than five per cent," said Trehan.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, not every medical tourist is dying to see the Taj. He could be someone for whom a hospital room is the only piece of India he can handle. In a month's stay at Apollo Hospital for complicated surgery to correct his wife Marlene's curved spine, Paul Smith, from Barrie, a small picture-postcard town in Ontario, left the hospital only once, on a trip to the airport to sort out ticketing. "With Marlene in bed, why would I want to sightsee?" he said.

Courtsy : Outlook Magazine

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