People relate “medical tourism” with trips to amazing foreign places where their vacations are mixed with some sort of medical treatment. Americans avail Central and South American medical tourism for more affordable weight-loss surgery, Australians head to Southeast Asia for breast augmentation and dental care, and so on.
For years, droves of healthcare travellers from all over the world have been visiting reputed hospitals in India for heart procedures, fertility treatment, Ayurveda, and much more. But lately, they’re heading there for a different reason: perhaps you could call it “pharmaceutical tourism.”
Patients suffering from hepatitis-C in the US and Europe are turning to the India health care system for a new, life-saving drug called Sovaldi. That’s because it’s either unavailable to them at home, or it’s prohibitively expensive.
This concept of crossing borders to purchase drugs isn’t new. Americans have been going to Canada and Mexico for years to buy lower-cost medicine, but there may never have been a case where a pill so effective in treating an infectious disease was so hard to come by.
The main problem affecting patients’ access to Sovaldi is price. One 12-week course of the medicine costs US$84,000, which equates to US$1,000 per day for a drug that cures hepatitis-C in over 90% of those fortunate enough to get their hands on it.
Fortunately, several generic drug makers have been licensed to make and sell copies of Sovaldi in 91 lower-income nations. And within the last year, several facilities in one of health-travel’s most popular destinations, India, began selling the 12-week regimen for about US$900.
That’s US$83,100 cheaper than in America.
As a result, a group of medical tourism agencies, drug distributors, and pharmacology consultants has sprung up in the US to help hepatitis-C sufferers become medical tourists. Patients are now able to procure much less expensive versions of Sovaldi, available in some countries for 1% of the price that the drug’s manufacturer in their home country charges for it.
What might an overseas’ trip to India be like for one of the 3.2 million Americans – or the estimated 130 million people worldwide – infected with chronic hepatitis-C?
According to an article on LiveMint.com – a prominent business news website in India – a company called Health Flight Solutions based in Orlando, Florida is helping establish a network of doctors and hospitals which are both able and willing to prescribe the drug to patients from overseas.
One of Health Flights Solutions’ customers recalled his experience like this: landed in Chennai; visited Apollo Hospital, one of the country’s finest; paid US$20 for a consultation with a British-trained physician; got referred to a licensed generic-drug distributor; paid US$1,000 for a full course of treatment.
Tacking on an extra US$2,000 for his flights and hotel, he still managed to save himself US$80,000. And more importantly, find a cure for what ails him. And that’s medical tourism, or perhaps pharmaceutical tourism, in a nutshell.