MEDICAL tourism, or seeking medical treatment in a foreign country, often at a much lower cost than in one’s country of origin, has a long history in Pakistan.

In the 1980s, Pakistan had a bustling black-market organ transplant industry. But this was short-lived, as new legislation prevented the proliferation of smuggled and illegally obtained organs. Since then, Pakistan has emerged as a strong contender for a new and lucrative medical tourism industry.

Low operation costs, high availability of educated physicians and developing medical industries have been cited as some of the most significant factors in this untapped market. However, Pakistan needs to address many issues before it can reap real benefits.

The global medical tourism industry is set to be worth almost $38.5 billion by 2020. In 2012, the UK’s Health Protection Agency estimated that 55,000 people went abroad to seek medical treatment. Of them, almost 70 per cent visited nations like Pakistan, India, Poland and Hungary.

While other barriers and challenges remain, such as healthcare infrastructure and government reform, none are more significant as the availability of highly trained physicians and security assurance

Of the Pakistani medical tourist demographic, most patients come to Pakistan for fertility and cosmetic operations, whereas a small minority visit for cardiac surgery.

Cost has been the primary driving factor for individuals seeking medical treatment in these nations. For example, an in vitro fertilisation operation in the United States can cost as much as $8,100, whereas in Pakistan the same operation can be done in $2,000, a 75pc decrease.

Additionally, many other basic procedures can be done at a similar cost ratio. The primary reason for this is the increasing foreign exchange rate. Since December 2017, the Pakistani rupee has lost almost 50pc of its value compared to the US dollar. While such devaluations may not be good for the economy on a macro scale, it does lower costs for foreigners seeking to get treatment in Pakistan.

While Pakistan has significant potential in the field of medical tourism, there remain equally significant barriers to the field’s success.

A large number of highly trained physicians is paramount in the industry’s development. Pakistani physicians are known to receive global admiration. With more than 50 medical schools, Pakistan produces around 30,000 physicians every year, according to the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council. While this is sufficient for a successful medical tourism industry, many physicians leave Pakistan seeking higher pay in other countries.

Pakistan currently has 0.8 physicians per capita compared to the 2.5 per capita in other developing nations, according to the World Health Organisation.

An average physician in a government hospital makes around $6,000 per year compared to an average of $189,000 per year in the United States. Enticing physicians to remain and practise in Pakistan will be the first hurdle needed to be passed in order to successfully lay the foundation of Pakistan’s medical tourism industry.

Security in Pakistan has been another barrier to medical tourism in Pakistan. Pakistan currently ranks 5th in the world for kidnappings, with an annual rate of 15,000, of which 10-20pc are for ransom. And although terror-related deaths have been falling in Pakistan since 2011, they remain among the highest in the world with over 1,000 deaths in 2017.

This environment has developed a negative perception of Pakistan. As such, 36 countries have issued a “Reconsider Travel” advisory on Pakistan, including the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. Ensuring the safety of foreigners and improving the perception of Pakistan internationally will be a necessary step in developing Pakistan’s medical tourism industry.

While other barriers and challenges remain, such as healthcare infrastructure and government reform, none are more significant as the availability of highly trained physicians and security assurance.

With a new government in Islamabad and a mounting economic crisis, the road forward towards the medical tourism industry is far from certain. Currently, no legislature in parliament or provincial assemblies has addressed the need

for more expenditure in healthcare. But with the untapped potential driven by low treatment costs, Pakistan’s ability to become a global medical tourism hub has never been greater.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 30th, 2019