In search of cheap, reliable treatment, foreign tourists are combining sightseeing with doctor’s appointments in Jaipur
Natalie Shaw has plenty to smile about. A 45-day holiday exploring the palaces and forts of Jaipur and other cities ought to be reason enough, but the real sparkle comes from the fact that she managed to save about 1,920 pounds (Rs. 1.36 lakh) during this trip.
The savings come from her decision to get her dental treatment done in Jaipur. Back home in London, a root canal and teeth whitening procedure would have cost her around 2,200 pounds (around Rs. 1.56 lakh), which was “frightfully expensive”. She had consulted her medical insurance company, which advised her to check out a dental hospital in Jaipur in India. Treatment here cost her only around 280 pounds (Rs. 20,000)!
“That’s when I decided to come to India. For the money that I would pay my dentist in London, I could afford air tickets as well as a holiday package,” says the advertising executive, whose entire holiday, including the dental treatment, cost her Rs. 1.45 lakh (about 2,042 pounds).
She confirmed her appointment with Dr. Balvinder Thakkar at his Jaipur Dental Hospital six months before her visit last November.
In between weekly sittings, she saw most of Rajasthan, Goa, Agra and Mount Abu. “The sittings were planned in such manner that she could holiday and cover as many places as possible and come back in time for her treatment,” says Thakkar.
Tourists like Shaw “pick out a destination for travel and plan their appointment with a dentist in advance. Over the years, this arrangement became more formal with tour operators making dental care a part of their package and the phenomenon came to be known as dental tourism,” says Naresh Jadeja, president of the US-based International Wellness and Healthcare Travel Association (IWHTA). The association is a collaboration of hospitals and medical professionals that helps provide information on medical facilities across the globe.
Kerala and Goa have been dental tourism hubs for decades. Now Jaipur has become a surprise addition to this list, with about 15 sophisticated hospitals coming up in the past five years.
Here the dentists too double up as travel agents. “The hospitals plan patients’ tours across the country and help with local guides,” says Thakkar. He too has set up a travel agency and is a sales agent for Palace on Wheels, the luxury tourist train operated by Rajasthan government. “We have also set up a farmhouse where we provide accommodation for our patients, should they desire so,” he says.
Many of the big hospitals have tied up with insurers abroad and tour operators locally. They also advertise abroad in newspapers and magazines, and on Web sites.
Why foreigners find India and Jaipur so attractive is because of the high cost of dental treatment and the long waiting lists associated with government health schemes back home.
A study by the IWHTA says that close to one-third of the people in the US do not have dental insurance. “Even the insured struggle because a surgery could cost anywhere between $3,000 and $15,000 per tooth and the insurers pay only $1,000 to $1,500 per year. Only bare minimum treatments or procedures are covered under insurance and not costly, cosmetic or laser dentistry surgery,” says the report. The case is similar in the UK and in most parts of the Western world.
A 2008 survey by Intuition Communication, a UK-based consultancy that specialises in medical tourism, showed that 90 percent of the respondents wanted to go abroad to avail cheaper dental care. Seventeen percent of those interviewed also said that the National Health Service (UK’s public health care system) waiting list was long and if they needed quick relief, they’d prefer going abroad.
While no official figures are available on the size of Jaipur’s industry, Thakkar says, “Dentists in Jaipur have earned over Rs. 8 crore from tourists in the past one year alone.”
Jaipur is an unlikely destination to emerge as a hub for dental tourism. It didn’t have a single dental college until 1983. Other destinations like Kerala and Goa get more visitors/patients because they have a stronger and older heritage in dental care. Kerala, for instance, treated close to 10,000 foreign patients last year, according to an estimate by Thomas K. Paulose, a leading dentist. The unofficial estimate for Jaipur is a mere 2,000 over the last five years. Dentistry as a profession has been in existence since the 1950s in Kerala. Plus the state has a massive population of non-resident Indians who, for several decades, have been getting their dental treatment done during visits home.