“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.”
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.