Afghan crisis casts a shadow on medical tourism in India

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The political unrest in Afghanistan is set to directly impact medical tourism in India.

Private hospitals, which had started getting requests for medical visas for surgical procedures and consultations from foreign nationals beginning June, are worried about patients from Afghanistan who had scheduled surgical procedures and consultations in August and September. Out of the total medical tourists coming from foreign countries to India for treatment, Afghans comprise about 8-9% of inflow. Over half – about 54% — come from Bangladesh. Afghans have favoured treatment in India, especially in Delhi and Gurgaon private hospitals, because of just 2-hour flights from Kabul.

Pavan Choudary, chairman Medical Technology Association of India (MTal), told ET, “Till 1990s Afghanistan’s health facilities compared well with others in its region. However, even before its occupation by the US in 2001, doctors and nurses started moving out of the country in droves due to unrest. A user fee waiver further made hospitals unviable. The rich Afghan patient started travelling to UK for his treatment and the middle class patient started coming to India. Soon the Afghan medical tourist contingent was among the top three of those coming to India for their treatment. It made nearly 9% of the footfalls annually. Post Covid this inflow dropped to a trickle. With the Taliban taking over it could drop to inconsequential numbers in the foreseeable future and will depend on the evolving Indo-Afghan relations.

The urgent care of cancer and organ transplant patients is a major cause of worry for private hospitals. Max Healthcare, which gets a majority of foreign patients from Afghanistan, said it is still getting 25 medical visa requests from Afghan patients daily. “We are processing about 25 medical visa requests but we do not know how the patients will reach here as there no flights. Indian embassy officials have also returned and will now function from New Delhi. We are worried about patients needing urgent care like our cancer patients,” said a spokesperson of Max Healthcare. The hospital chain had just started seeing foreign patients come back. Hospitals are taking all precautions in ensuring that medical visa application is processed for absolutely deserving patients as it could trigger a controversy at this time.

Anil Vinayak, group COO, Fortis Healthcare, said, “Since the last one year, medical tourism in India came to a complete halt due to the pandemic and restrictions on commercial flights. However, from June 2021 onwards, we were seeing initial signs of recovery and patients from middle-east countries and Afghanistan had started coming to our hospitals gradually. We hope that the recent developments in Afghanistan do not impact those in need of treatment and patients can continue to travel to receive the best medical services in India.” Industry estimates peg Afghanistan’s contribution to India’s medical tourism at Rs 1.5 -2 billion.

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