A case for medical tourism

Opening our services to patients from other countries can result in a significant economic boost

A case for medical tourism

Medical tourism is a fast-growing industry. A large number of people are now travelling to other countries to seek treatment for some serious and some not so serious conditions. The services range from organ transplants to cosmetic surgery. Any number of issues may make an individual with access to requisite funds travel across the globe in the hope of receiving the best possible or the cheapest available treatment.

Medical tourism can be sub-categorised into wellness, diagnostic and treatment-related travel. From supplementary health tours, procedures aimed at restoring and reviving one’s health, thus increasing immunity, medical testing for diagnostic purposes to therapy and rehabilitation all form part of this.

The world has become a lot smaller; globalisation has made it possible for people to move between countries for a different kind of experience or service. The number of people who travel to other countries to receive healthcare services is growing every year. Other factors that motivate patients to go abroad for treatment include saving and combining treatment with a vacation.

The tourism policies issued by the governments of Pakistan frequently mention medical tourism. The governments have stated on multiple occasions that promoting medical tourism is a priority. A task force formed in 2010 aimed to promote medical and wellness tourism in Pakistan. But can Pakistan compete with other countries when it comes to providing competitive healthcare services?

The country has some good healthcare experts as well as some state of the art health facilities. These setups provide treatments for much less than some other countries in the region and beyond. Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital, Aga Khan Hospital and Shifa International are worth mentioning in this regard.

Pakistan was once the biggest organ transplant hub. Billions of rupees were made through kidney transplants before stringent laws and thorough enforcement were put in place to prevent illegal organ trade.

Medical tourism is definitely on the rise. There is a lot of potential in the industry, particularly in the orthopaedic, ENT, urology, optometry and cardiology. Given proper attention, the industry can help stabilise the economy and contribute to a better image of the country.

Challenges faced by medical tourism in Pakistan include a lack of infrastructure, the difficulty of maintaining services quality and meeting the Joint Commission International (JCI) standards. As medical tourism is categorised as a business, conforming to ISO 9000 standards is a requirement, too.

Among other factors influencing this trend, quality and safety are major issues. There is very little regulation of medical tourism in Pakistan and as a result very little legal protection. However, there are ways to protect yourself before you go. Pakistan can be competitive in medical tourism once the law and order situation in the country improves. The recreational aspect is another factor choosing an offshore destination for treatment. Like all consumers, patients do shop outside the organised medical system to find more affordable/ timely services.

Pakistan has many necessary checks to tick off before foreign patients start arriving in a steady stream. It also needs to create a medical tourist visa category.

Further, there is a need to train the hospital staff to keep up with international standards. Nursing care, pivotal in healthcare, must be upgraded. Maintaining standards of hygiene, patient care, and proper communication skills are vital to a a thriving medical tourism set up.

The patients also need be served quality food, treated respectfully and in a friendly atmosphere.

Pakistan will face tough competition in this field from countries like Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea that are already providing an extensive range of services combined with attractive tourist opportunities.

The initiatives undertaken by the Punjab Healthcare Commission, an autonomous health regulatory body for improving the quality, safety and efficiency of healthcare service delivery for all public and private healthcare establishments, by defining and enforcing the minimum service delivery standards (MSDS) - a set of the benchmarks for minimum level of mandatory services that a healthcare establishment (HCE) is responsible to achieve and patients have a right to expect, are a start.

The PHC has a continuous quality improvement (CQI) programme to improve healthcare delivery by identifying problems, suggesting corrective procedures, monitoring remedial actions and studying their effectiveness. Registration and with PHC is a sign of delivering quality healthcare services.

To achieve the targets set by the relevant task force, the government will have to form rules and regulations to address the JCI requirements.

The writer is a freelance journalist. He can be reached at pashajaved1@gmail.com

A case for medical tourism