India & Medical Tourism


Have you planned your next vacation yet? How about an international trip that offers exotic landscapes, ancient cultural landmarks, and spicy food? I’m talking about India, one of the “hot” new destinations for tourists. But the tourists I’m thinking about aren’t really focused on interesting places. They are the new breed of medical tourists, with surgery at the top of their itinerary.

These tourists head overseas not only for a few nips and tucks, but also for serious medical needs such as cardiac surgery and hip replacement. India is an increasingly popular choice, with world-class hospitals that look like 5-star hotels and physicians that graduated at the top of their class. Many of them trained in the U.S or U.K. India is also much cheaper, which is the primary draw for overseas surgery. Some estimates put the cost of surgery in the US at ten times the price in India, and that includes the plane ticket. This has lured many Americans, both insured and uninsured, to India to have needed surgery.

It’s not just the surgery that medical tourists want. They also need medical resources, such as a kidney organ. While India officially bans the sale of organs, it is not that hard to find a poor and desperate individual willing to sell you one of theirs. The waiting list for a donated kidney is long. Nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. are currently in need of a kidney, enticing many to go to India (and other destinations) to skip the waiting list and purchase their own.

The high cost of healthcare and the limited availability of kidney donors in the U.S. have caused many to view India and its people as America’s latest and greatest medical resource. Isn’t this a win-win situation? Well, there have been some positive outcomes. The competition from overseas hospitals has reduced costs in American hospitals. In some cases, the Indian boutique hospitals have raised overall medical care in their region. It looks like Americans have access to affordable healthcare while helping to make life better for India’s poor. The facts paint a different picture. The rich are getting healthcare, but the poor are getting ignored. There’s been no “trickle down” effect for most Indians.

According to the World Bank, 42 percent of India’s population is living under the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.[1] Many of them incur crushing debt to pay for urgent healthcare. Using India to meet our health needs takes away essential resources from a country already struggling with poverty. Meanwhile, there is a “brain drain” of the best Indian doctors going into lucrative private practice. Medical tourists get priority for high technology while the public hospitals limp along.

As Christians we know that we should care for the impoverished and vulnerable among us, because they too are loved and valued by God. Affordable healthcare in the United States is a matter of justice, but not if it means no healthcare for the poorest among us. India should not be treated as our personal healthcare resource. India’s people deserve better. Much better.

[1] The World Bank, “Revised Poverty Estimates, What Does This Mean for India” (accessed July 1, 2010).


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