A growing number of outsiders is flocking to the city for treatment. Doctors tell Subha J Rao that medical tourism is here to stay
Aimineth Shahula, 13, was like a fish out of water. A resident of the Maldives, where life revolved around the sea, she could not frolic in the water with her friends. All because she had scoliosis (an S-shaped spine). Besides affecting her gait, the condition also dented her confidence. An operation at the Ganga Hospital, performed by S. Rajasekaran corrected the deformity. And within six months she could do what every child born near the sea loves to do - swim.Like Shahula a lot of people are coming to Coimbatore seeking medical treatment. Not just from outside the State, but also from abroad. The reason is that the rates are cheaper (30-40 per cent of what Chennai and Mumbai charge) here and the quality of treatment top class. That is why Aimineth's family decided to bring her here, medical guide Ismail Naseen in tow.Also, foreigners are impressed with the bedside manners of the doctors. The pains doctors took to explain her medical problem touched Zakyia Salman, a homemaker from Bahrain, who was operated at the same hospital. Technological advances and an increasing number of local doctors presenting papers abroad has drawn attention to this part of the world. The convenience of online appointments has made things simpler for patients. The concept of `Medical Tourism' has been bandied about for long. With prohibitive costs and a growing waiting list in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world, the spotlight is on India. While the metros have taken advantage of this interest, second-tier cities like Coimbatore have only now woken up to it. According to Dr Rajasekaran, "None of the Coimbatore hospitals has been advertising abroad. It is vital to market your service and tie up with a resort so that the patient can convalesce in peace. Till now, we have only word-of-mouth publicity. What has drawn people is obviously the special pool of medical talent available here and the highly cost effective treatment. Surgical references matter too. Once you have made a name in academic circles, people refer patients to you," he adds.
Most of the leading doctors have trained abroad before returning to their roots to start high-tech hospitals. Speciality hospitals, a special feature of the city, are a big draw with medical tourists. "They (hospitals) are a highly focussed group and have been able to focus on human and financial resources and training opportunities. When you specialise, dilutions are fewer and there is high-quality care," says Dr. Rajasekaran. Dr. Nalla G Palaniswami, Chairman and Managing Director, Kovai Medical Center and Hospitals (KMCH), says that Coimbatore's advantage is its reasonably good infrastructure and expertise at a fraction of the cost of other metros. His hospital has seen 1,000 patients come in from the North East between 2003 and 2005. To aid patients, the hospital provides a Bengali/Assamese speaking caretaker. The cuisine is also North- Eastern, says V. Ramesh, General Manager-Marketing. The medical fraternity feels that besides this, there is need for liaison officers and translators, more number of beds, cleaner wards and a uniform system of pricing.As Dr. G. Bakthavathsalam, Chairman, K.G. Hospital, says, "This is like a business. Tour operators have to sell us." For now, the hospital has treated about 150 patients drawn largely from the Middle East and England. Dr. C. Palanivelu of Gem Hospital, known for its laparoscopic surgeries, says, "As a city we have potential. People don't come here just because we are cheaper. They recognise quality and we need to do throw light on that." It is not just for major surgeries that people come here. Eye care and dentistry are very popular too. "Eye treatment does not take too much time, so it fits into the holiday plans of NRIs," says Dr. D Ramamurthy of The Eye Foundation. It helps that not much prolonged follow up is needed for procedures involving the eye. He says that of late, the geographical spread of patients has grown. "We get people from Europe, America, Africa, West Asia ... they normally come in for lasik treatment and cataract. A Qatari man brought in his mother for cataract surgery, wife for lasik and daughter for squint correction," he adds.In England, the average waiting time for cataract surgery is 12-18 months. And, the cost of treatment is high. Travelling to India is a cheaper option. In fact, there is an agency in Kottayam that organises such medical-resort trips, the ophthalmologist points out. There is also a need to impress upon foreign insurance companies the advantages in allowing patients to get treated here. NRIs head to India for dental treatment, especially cosmetic ones, during their holidays. "A root canal procedure and crowning done here is a lot less expensive than abroad," says S. Seetharaman, orthodontist.