Untapped market: Can Pakistan become a hub for medical tourism?

Published: April 17, 2012

Country is home to specialists that can provide world-class treatment, say doctors. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

KARACHI: 

“Every country, except Pakistan, is concerned with medical tourism,” say doctors, who bemoan the fact that our government is sleeping over a golden opportunity.

Medical tourism – a buzzword in global healthcare – is a term used to describe the worldwide trend of people travelling across international borders to obtain healthcare. India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand and Dubai are some of the top destinations to where patients flock to to get better treatment.

Gynaecologist Sadiah Pal says there is no need for Pakistanis, at least, to travel abroad for treatment; she believes that Pakistan has specialists and high-quality hospitals where comparable care is available. Pal says the cost for infertility treatment abroad can range between Rs2.5-3 million, while the same treatment in Pakistan costs around Rs0.2 million.

“Some patients who come from the US are those who don’t have insurance cover there; and so, they come here [for treatment],” she says.

She says the government, if it wants, can jump onto the medical tourism bandwagon and market it like other countries do. “We too have the best doctors and hospitals. We just need to package it right; like it is being done in India. They throw in a sightseeing tour and a massage therapy session along with the treatment.”

Pakistan Medical Association Sindh President Dr Samrina Hashmi says there is huge potential for Pakistan in becoming a hub for medical tourism, like so many other countries in its neighbourhood.

“Already, a number of patients from places such as the Middle East, UK and US seek a range of treatments in Pakistan; these include cardiac surgery, infertility treatments and cosmetic surgery,” she says.

Costs for treatment in Pakistan are more than 50% of what doctors and hospitals charge abroad, she explains. At the moment, most foreign patients who come here for treatment are of Pakistani origin.

In the past, a sizable number of such globe-trotting patients came here for kidney transplants. “However, these cases have gone down since legislation came into place to regulate the illegal trade of selling kidneys,” she says.

Hashmi says medical tourism can be a huge opportunity for Pakistan if the government focuses on key issues. “Just improve the security situation here, and you’ll see that people from all over the world will skip places like Thailand to seek healthcare in Pakistan.”

Liaqat National Hospital’s plastic surgeon Dr Shehab Beg says he receives about 50 patients per year from abroad. “Most of them come for plastic surgery; such as liposuction and hair transplantation.”

Liposuction can cost between Rs0.7-0.8 million abroad, while the same procedure here can be done within Rs0.2 million, he says.

“Pakistan, too, can give the world a tough competition in medical tourism,” Beg says. He echoes Hashmi in saying that unless the law and order situation in the country is improved, the business side of the health industry may not grow.

“Already, a number of health professionals have left the country to work in hospitals abroad. They could have done the same work here in Pakistan, if only the situation here had been better.”

‘Foreign Agents’

In fact, in Pakistan, some doctors work as agents for foreign hospitals; earning commissions if they send affluent Pakistani patients for treatment to their patron hospitals.

One such agent is a man who calls himself Dr Mian Atif Fayaz. He has set up an office for the Thailand-based Bumrungrad International hospital in Lahore. His ads for the hospital are currently doing rounds over the internet and email.

When a reporter from The Express Tribune dialled the office’s number posing as a potential patient, Dr Mian Atif Fayaz – who answered the phone himself – said that not only had he set up a regional office for the international hospital in Lahore, but was also the managing director of globalhealthtravel.pk, a web-based company.

The Thai hospital, he claimed, provided healthcare for all types of illnesses. He asked for patient reports to be sent over to him via email, which he would then forward to the hospital abroad. He explained the expenses would include a ‘nominal processing fee’ and a detailed breakdown of the cost of seeking treatment at the hospital would be provided to the hospital. He added that treatment expenses increase depending on the type of rooms and degree of comfort one sought at the hospital.

Doctors say there is nothing illegal about marketing for hospitals based abroad, but it hurts their clientele base.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (40)

  • hasan
    Apr 17, 2012 - 3:38AM

    The words “Fake Medicine Scandal” immediately come to mind.

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  • Amjad
    Apr 17, 2012 - 4:14AM

    Given the choice of health care in Thailand vs Pakistan, I think I would still have more confidence in a reputable Pakistani health facility. In fact a lot of expatriates do go for medical care in Pakistan especially in Lahore and Islamabad where there are new health facilities.The funny thing is that a lot of the rich folks who go to the UK or the US for treatment wind up being treated by expatriate Pakistani physicians who are well respected abroad.

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  • FF
    Apr 17, 2012 - 6:35AM

    excellent idea and an opportunity :)

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  • Apr 17, 2012 - 9:12AM

    Just improve the security situation here says it all. Medical tourism in Mexico and Thailand – especially Mexico – suffers greatly because international patient safety and security is threatened. Mexico has been dropped from the Medical Travel Quality Alliance Top 10 World’s Best Hospitals for Medical Tourists http://bit.ly/IIp3AU for this reason.

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  • khan
    Apr 17, 2012 - 9:37AM

    Got to be kidding me right??? Mubasir Luqman and Talat Masood both did reports of condition of healthcare here, in the best city Karachi, after watching i literally vomitted seeing the inside of hospitals, rooms, even OT. Its available in youtube for everyone to check, in many of so called world class pakistan hospitals. With fake doctors, nurses, medicines and reused syringes, we want to bring foreigners here??? Please dont make us more ashamed globally by coming up with this ludicrous idea.

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  • gp65
    Apr 17, 2012 - 10:25AM

    @Julie Munro: Julie,
    Thanks for posting the link to the top 10 international hospitals for mdical tourism. It was heartening to see the Indian hospital Fortis is no. 1 on the list

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  • Ohoo
    Apr 17, 2012 - 12:04PM

    I don’t understand many Pakistanis themselves come to India for treatment which is not available at Home, how would they provide treatment for foreigners? Even if they do, do you think they will come to a country where there is hardly any security for common Pakistani let alone for a foreigner.

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  • Apr 17, 2012 - 12:07PM

    No doubt Pakistan has one of the best doctors and medical experts – but you do need to improve on the security situation first. I don’t see anyone getting convinced to travel all the way to Pakistan for a transplant when they would be scared (even if wrongly) for rest of their limbs!Recommend

  • Apr 17, 2012 - 12:27PM

    Did anyone else notice that, apparently, every procedure can be performed in Pakistan for 0.2 million Rupees? There’s a pricing model we can’t compete with in the other medical tourism markets :)

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  • Chacha
    Apr 17, 2012 - 1:14PM

    No european in his right mind will come to pakistan for medical treatment. while there may be a cost advanatge, that cost advantage is avaiable in india as well – and no security issue there.

    Security has become an overarching issue for Pakistan. But was it not the army that said Honor is more important. So the choice has been made.

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  • Apr 17, 2012 - 1:55PM

    Zardari calls it an evolution

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  • Mandeep Vaid
    Apr 17, 2012 - 3:00PM

    O yes, foreign patients coming in wheel-chairs and parceled back in coffins. Reason? Electricity fall out during the operation! Or the nurses and doctors week long strikes resulting in the deaths of patients. Fake medicine, fake doctors scandal where patients keep on dying as self-understood.

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  • One who Know
    Apr 17, 2012 - 3:07PM

    @ Khan both Mubasher & Luqman are running their show on commercial basis not based on facts & figuers so do not take them for face value.Only motive is to earn money for their T V Channel

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  • Pragmatist
    Apr 17, 2012 - 3:10PM

    India has many hospitals that are purpose built for medical tourism. They quote a package rate and it is their responsibility right from the moment the patient lands at the airport to ensuring he reaches safely back home after surgery. India has made huge strides in this area and some hospitals have a long waiting list.

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  • Pragmatist
    Apr 17, 2012 - 3:11PM

    @Usman Malik: That is just not true. Each year many Pakistani children come to India with various heart-related ailments and transplant requirements. They come here because such facilities are not available locally.

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  • BlackJack
    Apr 17, 2012 - 3:16PM

    Having good doctors is not the same as having world-class facilities to provide healthcare. This is why so many Pakistanis come to India for treatment. Further, given Pakistan’s current reputation, you are unlikely to be able to attract the best talent, adequate investment, or the right clientele to become big players in medical tourism – any foreigner looking at treatment outside his home country would prefer India to Pakistan, even if the rates charged are double.

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  • Sonya
    Apr 17, 2012 - 3:44PM

    Since there are no ethics left in Pakistan’s private hospitals in big cities (every household has a bad story to narrate) and then a weak medico-judicial system so don’t think of it in present circumstances.

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  • dsnaseem
    Apr 17, 2012 - 4:09PM

    @khan:
    I doubt you have any clue what you’re talking about. Please base your view on something slightly more authentic than a television “report” (which I did not find on youtube,so please add the link or be more specific). While you’re at it, please do watch Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko. It’s an eye-opener. I have no idea what kind of hopsitals you’ve been visiting.

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  • Aditya Randhawa
    Apr 17, 2012 - 4:11PM

    Pakistan can give the world a tough competition only in terrorism

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  • Cosmo
    Apr 17, 2012 - 4:14PM

    Right, if fake meds wont kill u, a bullet here and there will. Goodluk going there.

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  • Ahmad
    Apr 17, 2012 - 4:16PM

    First, let us convince our politicians and “leaders” to use medical facilities in Pakistan..

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  • Apr 17, 2012 - 4:19PM

    Pragmatist and BlackJack are barking up the right tree here, but just googling around, actually, the facilities don’t look too bad to me (not on par with the top hospitals, but definitely better looking than some very successful facilities):

    http://www.maroof.com.pk/index.php/about-us-gg/overview
    http://www.qih.com.pk/
    http://www.shifa.com.pk/

    My guess is that they’d go after the Arab market, which is huge and sought-after in non-aesthetic medical tourism because it’s so lucrative.

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  • swapnil
    Apr 17, 2012 - 4:31PM

    hi to all pakistani,
    I am cardiologist at U N Mehta institute of heart, ahmedabad, gujarat, part of civil hospital, ahmedabad. i see pakistani patients every other week here for valvular or myocardial diseases. My colleagues in other dept. of civil hospital also sees this kind of trend. I trully believe patients can go anywhere in the world to get the right treatment but if pakistan can’t even provide basic treatment to their people and then talks about medical tourism is hugely disappointing. Medical tourism is private thing and governments should not spend iota of its resources behind it.

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  • THE
    Apr 17, 2012 - 4:40PM

    This is a pure joke! Why do we see the politicians in Pakistan go to the US or UK or even to Dubai for a mere check-up? We hear of the mian brother’s check up at London hospitals regularly or of Zardari getting treatment at American Hospital in Dubai, why is that so? They don’t have trust in their own facilities and doctors, so why would anyone else come to Pakistan? I don’t want to sound pesimistic but once we have a leader that has confidence in his own people then we can ask others to come to Pakistan for medical reasons as well. Have you ever heard of Imran Khan getting a check-up in London or Dubai? Think about it!! That’s the difference that makes the reputation of a country!

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  • G. Din
    Apr 17, 2012 - 5:03PM

    @Mark:
    “My guess is that they’d go after the Arab market,”
    Why would Arabs, with all that oil loot go to Pakistan when they can go to America?

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  • ZYZE
    Apr 17, 2012 - 5:10PM

    I am a Pakistani, living abroad, i am still having treatment for my daughter, but not in Pakistan,

    When you see the bad security situation in Pakistan, who will travel, … every day, there is strike , there is a bomb…firing…., the patient is already seeking treatment, why they will risk there lives with another tension of security problem.( imagine, foreginers being robbed on the road, of there cash and jewellry, mobile snatching, and above all they have to reach hospital in emergency and the strike is going on).
    Trust me, i know many foreginers, who used to travel to Pakistan earlier, when the situation was not this bad, but now, know one wants to go, even they ask me not to go.
    Now every one knows every thing, the meida is so strong,.. you can not make fool to anyone that the situation is good.
    This cannot be improved , until our leaders in power , will wake up from there beloved sleep.

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  • Adi
    Apr 17, 2012 - 5:18PM

    but why the swiss flag in the picture?

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  • Cautious
    Apr 17, 2012 - 5:40PM

    An American or European can go to Thailand – get quality medical care by a licensed USA surgeon – live in a upscale resort – have no concerns about his/her safety – be an appreciated customer – and do so at nominal cost. How’s Pakistan going to compete with that? Who wants to go to a country noted for violence, xenophobia, anti western rants, and power outages – let alone a mediocre if not lousy reputation in the medical field? Ain’t going to happen – the fact that someone thinks it can tells me just how out of touch you are with your own World image.

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  • Ali S
    Apr 17, 2012 - 5:43PM

    How about we fix the state of our government hospitals and medical education system (which produces hundreds of “housewife doctors” every year) first so we can provide this basic facility to our population, let alone foreigners.

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  • Repatriated
    Apr 17, 2012 - 6:03PM

    Besides security issues, post-op care is really not up to the mark here in Pakistan for there to be a successful long-term trend of medical tourism.

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  • Apr 17, 2012 - 6:31PM

    @G. Din Right now, India and Thailand are (I believe) the two largest destination markets for Arabic language markets. Kuala Lumpur also does a fair trade, which is interesting considering how small it is. Why? Because it’s a Muslim country and enough people have sufficient Arabic language skills to service it.

    So while it’s a common assumption that A) Arabs are either princes or paupers (there’s a large middle class that needs care too) and B) they automatically go to the US or UK, the reality is that they’re probably the single largest language medical tourism market in Asia after English in revenue. I’d have to go source that to be sure, but just being in the industry I can tell you that they’re very lucrative patients because they come for non-aesthetic treatments, which is where the serious money is (anything from knee replacements to cancer treatments and so on).

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  • Amrita
    Apr 17, 2012 - 7:41PM

    Don’t hospitals have load shedding???

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  • gp65
    Apr 17, 2012 - 7:46PM

    Manmohan Singh, Vajpayee and AMitabh Bacchan get themselves treated in India. When Zardari and Nawaz Sharif do the same, Pakistani hospitals will get the credibility they need to gain market with people not of Pakistani origin. This is ain addition toteh obvious issue related to security.

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  • Gulkhaiz
    Apr 17, 2012 - 9:50PM

    As predictable, as soon as something positive and nice is written about Pakistan a typical segment of people with lopsided view of Pakistan start bashing it, particularly Indians. Irony is that some of us, without the knowledge of the subject and more of it as a fashion to criticize, are the first to take a shot. Please take a realistic view of the proposition. Why not? We can certainly become an attractive medical tourist resort. If given the right package to the patients. Every year large number of Pakistani doctors compete internationally and qualify fellowship exams of UK and US, subsequently practice not only in Pakistan, but all over the world. As far as hospitals are concerned there are numerous private hospitals, like Agha khan, Shaukat khanum and Al Shifa trust Eye hospital, to name few, which have good facilities for providing specialist care.
    Moreover they can always upgrade the facilities to compete. It is not a big deal it can be done

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  • Parvez
    Apr 17, 2012 - 11:30PM

    If the government gets involved it will be a non-starter.
    Most of our politicians and big-wigs land up in London, USA or even Dubai for treatment, if they so much as even catch a cold. So where if the confidence factor in government hospitals or even our private ones ??
    Articles like this are just kite flying exercises.

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  • aslam beig
    Apr 18, 2012 - 2:18AM

    Arent we already providing medical services to terrorists from all over the world whenever they need medical attention due to injuries while fighting.

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  • Pakistani
    Apr 18, 2012 - 4:11AM

    Didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this article. We don’t even have specialized services for patients in Pakistan and we are talking about medical tourism.? My dad went to Apollo in India for a liver transplant.

    Lets fix our security situation, economy and education first and then talk about medical tourism. Right now, the only thing we are famous for is “terrorism”–lets change that first.

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  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Apr 18, 2012 - 10:10AM

    Why is it that Pakistanis come to Mumbai and Bangalore for heart surgeries?

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  • MAD
    Apr 18, 2012 - 11:05AM

    I have heard of people coming in for cosmetic, dental surguries and hair transplants etc. however the sceurity factor is an issue. Remember one guy who flew in from the UK for a hair transplant and got shot in Karachi during a robbery attempt

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  • Apr 22, 2012 - 11:45AM

    A good measure of a country’s strength in becoming a hub for medical and dental tourism is the number of internationally accredited hospitals in country. As your article uses Thailand as a comparison, take a look at the internationally accredited hospitals there. Pakistan has one internationally accredited hospital, Aga Khan University Hospital. Thailand has 15. For a complete list of internationally accredited hospitals in Thailand, see the following infographic. http://smileplanners.com/blog/2011/08/15/medical-tourism-in-thailand-top-internationally-accredited-hospitals-infographic/

    Pakistan can certainly become a regional player for medical tourism but it’s the hospitals that lead the way. The leading medical tourism hospitals in Thailand are all internationally accredited. It’s part of the marketing plan.

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