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Treated but cheated
Despite impressive double-digit growth figures (30 per cent every year), India's medical tourism sector is plagued by its share of controversy. The number of complaints of patients getting fleeced through unnecessary procedures and investigations, and cases of botched-up procedures are on the rise. The patients have little or no recourse to justice as they have to return to their home country after their treatment gets over.
Muqdad M Abbas, an official at the Iraqi embassy in Delhi, says they are flooded with complaints from Iraqis who come to India seeking medical treatments. "Every month, over 500 Iraqis land in Delhi for healthcare. Many of them get fleeced by unscrupulous elements who pose as interpreters, and even by the hospitals. "
He recounts the horror story of a 70-year-old patient from Iraq who underwent knee-joint replacement in a private hospital in Delhi. Soon after the surgery, his joint became infected, but the doctors did very little to help him out. "The man spent enormous amounts of money making trips to India to treat the infection, and eventually his leg had to be amputated in Iraq as gangrene had set in. When they (unscrupulous agents) see Iraqis, they see 'money', not 'patients'. We have reported the matter to the ministry of health and ministry of external affairs, but no action has been taken so far, " says Abbas.
An Afghan embassy spokesperson, too, admits to receiving sporadic complaints, but adds that they aren't able to keep track of such cases as they don't have a health attachê.
Many doctors are concerned that such incidents will spoil India's reputation in the health tourism market. What data theft did to the BPO sector in India, which resulted in many companies shifting out, could be repeated in the medical tourism sector, they fear. "The government needs to step in and frame rules for the business. Patient counselling, for instance, should be video-recorded so that neither the hospitals nor interpreters can cheat the patient. The recording can be examined in case of a complaint. All medical tourism companies, and even interpreters, ought to be registered and there should be a cell in the health ministry to deal with complaints from medical tourists, " suggests Kochhar.
However, Boolchandani is not sure if the government should be asked to do the policing. "A patient might mention a particular hospital in his medical visa, but he is free to change his mind and go to some other hospital. Most of these patients don't come to government hospitals. So what can the government do?" he asks. "The private hospitals have to streamline the whole process for patients from abroad. We have our own in-house interpreters for patients from Afghanistan and Iraq. We have doctors who have studied in Russia who can communicate with patients from countries in Central Asia such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. We get our patients picked up right from the airport and all their needs are taken care of. Such arrangements minimise chances of them being cheated, " says Boolchandani.
As of now, the inadequate checks are hardly enough to protect foreign patients from getting cheated. It is a different matter that, still, for every bad experience there are many others that brim with hope and happiness. Patients from abroad continue to descend at Indian airports in the hope of care and cure, a majority of them returning happy and healthy.
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