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India recorded 48% jump in medical tourists from Bangladesh

India saw a dramatic increase in medical tourists from Bangladesh in 2023, with numbers soaring 48 per cent to 449,570 from 304,067 in 2022. This sharp rise contrasts with the comparatively low influx from other neighbouring countries like the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Myanmar.

Government data reviewed by Business Standard reveals that in 2023-24 India granted only 1,432 medical visas to Sri Lankans, an 11.7 per cent year-on-year (Y-o-Y) decline. Myanmar citizens received 3,019 medical visas, a modest 4 per cent increase from the previous year. The figures for Pakistan remained notably low, with only 76 medical visas granted in 2023-24, compared to 106 the previous year.

Anas Abdul Wajid, senior director and chief sales and marketing officer at Max Healthcare, told Business Standard: “We are not getting patients from Pakistan and Afghanistan because of political and security issues. The Government of India does not issue visas to patients from these countries. We have seen a considerable increase in patients from Nepal. Patients from Myanmar have also been growing steadily; however, following an investigation by the Financial Times regarding illegal kidney transplants, the embassy and authorities have become more cautious and diligent in issuing medical visas.”

Regarding Bangladesh, Wajid noted substantial patient growth.

“Patients travel to Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Delhi. Indian hospitals have always enjoyed an excellent reputation in Bangladesh. Patients usually come for transplants, cardiac sciences, neuro, ortho, and oncology-related treatments. Max Healthcare has representatives based in Dhaka who assist patients in their journey to our hospitals,” he added.

During the general elections, however, there was a temporary lull in patients from Bangladesh, and fewer visas were issued. “The Indian embassy, while doing its best, is often inundated with medical visa requests, leading to substantial waiting times for patients,” Wajid said.

Last financial year, Max Healthcare recorded 22 per cent growth in international business over the previous year.

The surge in Bangladeshi visitors has also prompted a notable increase in air connectivity. Air India expanded its services between India and Bangladesh from three weekly flights in June 2023 to 14 per week currently. An Air India executive told this newspaper that demand on India-Bangladesh routes is so high that even if they were to operate widebody planes on these routes, they would be filled to capacity. Currently, Air India operates flights on India-Bangladesh routes using narrowbody planes. A widebody plane has a much higher number of seats.

IndiGo and Vistara, respectively, operate 35 and 11 weekly flights between India and Bangladesh. None of the airlines responded to Business Standard’s queries on the matter. Overall, 113 weekly flights now operate between India and Bangladesh, representing 10.8 per cent Y-o-Y increase in air traffic between the two countries, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium.

In a move to further facilitate medical tourism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced last Saturday that India would introduce an e-medical visa facility for Bangladeshi nationals seeking treatment in India. This announcement followed his meeting with Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina.

Preet Matani, managing director (healthcare) at PwC India, told Business Standard: “The key drivers for patients coming to India from Bangladesh for medical treatment are the availability of cost-effective, high-quality treatment for complex and quaternary care procedures that may not be available locally. The ease of obtaining a medical visa, along with cultural resemblance, linguistic comfort, and excellent connectivity through air and road, has helped increase the numbers in recent years.”

Asked about measures to attract medical tourists from a wider range of countries, Matani suggested several strategies. He proposed offering free medical visas and expediting the application process. Matani also recommended creating a nodal body to promote medical value travel and emphasised the importance of increasing the frequency of direct flights with target countries to improve accessibility.

Cultural and linguistic affinities between eastern parts of India and Bangladesh also help attract patients, hospitals said.

Santy Sajan, group chief operating officer at Paras Health, noted that geographical proximity (one can travel by road to Kolkata from Bangladesh), as well as linguistic and cultural affinities, play a sizeable role in this trend.

“Besides this, the services provided by private medical players, right from offering comprehensive packages that include doctor appointments and medical advisors throughout their stay, make the process more accessible. At Paras Health, we have seen a rise in Bangladeshi patients along with a diverse patient base from other neighbouring countries and even Western countries. This overall trend underscores the broader perspective of India’s emerging role as a global health care hub,” he said.

West Bengal, Bangladesh’s neighbouring region, has seen a remarkable surge in patients from that country after the pandemic.

Sombrata Roy, unit head at Calcutta Medical Research Institute, Kolkata, said, “West Bengal has seen a major increase in the number of patients from Bangladesh after the pandemic, with a 10 per cent rise in patient inflow. This growth can be attributed to several factors: the geographical proximity between West Bengal and Bangladesh, efficient connectivity through direct trains and buses, and the shared cultural, linguistic, and culinary ties between the regions.”

Previously, Bangladeshi patients often sought medical care in other South Asian countries. However, due to Covid restrictions, many have turned to West Bengal, which has now become a preferred destination for their health care needs.

The primary areas of medical treatment sought include paediatric cardiology, renal care, complex surgeries, interventional radiology, and robotic joint replacements. Business Standard

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