Through preliminary assessment, telemedicine helps patients decide whether they need to make the journey for advanced treatment
Internet-propelled technologies that are shaping the new-age globalisation are also in some ways diminishing the need for trans-border travel for services. And telemedicine is one such technology-based service. With the ongoing pandemic leading to near crystallisation of all-round behaviour in terms of restricted physical and social fraternising, telemedicine has come to acquire a permanent value in our lives.
Particularly in the backdrop of the advent of medical value travel (MVT) as a specialised health-driven travel service in recent years, telemedicine has emerged as a potent alternative to those wishing to access quality healthcare outside their own countries.
India since time immemorial has been a huge draw for people outside by virtue of also being a repository of traditional knowledge and wisdom in terms of health and wellness.
And continuing this tradition, in more modern times too, it has retained its popularity and goodwill among global health and wellness enthusiasts.
In 2019, nearly seven lakh people or 6.4 per cent of total tourists, came to India exclusively for medical purposes. A year earlier in 2018, nearly 25 per cent arrivals from West Asia were for medical purpose followed by Africa (14.6 per cent), South Asia (13 per cent) and Eastern Europe (4.2 per cent). And of West Asians, 86 per cent of Iraqis, 54 per cent of Yeminis, nearly 29 per cent of Omanis and over 10 per cent of Saudi Arabian tourists came to our country for medical reasons only. In a similar vein, among our South Asian neighbours, 30 per cent of Afghans, 22 per cent of Maldivians and 14 per cent of Bangladeshis came for medical purpose alone.
And this flow of medical tourists is not restricted to these sources only. India is also a favoured destination of medical tourists from advanced countries such as the US. According to Medical Tourism Index that ranks American perception of 46 international healthcare destinations, for 2020-21, India ranks sixth in terms of medical tourism industry, sixth in terms of qualities of facilities and services, and tenth overall on the index.
Combining medical value travel with telemedicine is brimming with potential in terms of not just capacity building of client countries and improving patient outcomes but generating precious foreign exchange (through services offered), creating employment and, importantly, helping in soft power projections of a country.
The rising traction in telehealth cannot merely complement MVT but even serve as a force multiplier for the latter. And for the client country, cost-effective access to quality care without the need for physical travel would be a huge incentive. Fundamentally, telemedicine can help with preliminary assessment of patients before having to make medical value travel to another country. Given that radiology services are typically a high-cost proposition, teleradiology can help reduce costs by enabling transmission of patient’s images such as X-rays, CT scans and MRI images and thereby facilitating high quality analysis from locations in India. And once preliminary evaluation is done, a patient can make the journey for advanced treatment or relevant surgeries to a health destination country such as India.
As telehealth emerges as a critical component of the Indian healthcare delivery system galvanised by Covid-19, it can make invaluable contribution to the global medical value market for Indian healthcare. Apart from preparing a comprehensive policy blueprint towards this end, the government should also work out legal, technological and investment issues with potential client countries.
In fact, India could start by identifying a few client countries first and use that template for others subsequently.
The writer is CEO, Apollo TeleHealth