India is one of the medical tourism destinations of the world, with numbers expected to reach 3.25 million patients from abroad by 2015. Chennai, attracting around 40 per cent of these visitors, is considered the medicare capital of the country. With its estimated 18,000 hospital beds and hosts of multi-speciality services, it has set a pace that is hard to match by other Indian cities. While all this is to the good, what is not is that competition is soon catching up internationally, with Dubai poised to become a new medical tourism hub in this region.

The current statistics are heavily loaded in Dubai’s favour. The tiny nation, having burnt its fingers in trying to fashion itself into a financial hub, has now decided to put its excellent infrastructure to better use by catering to medical ­requirements. The medical tourism strategy for the country was unveiled last month. During its two phases, respectively ending in 2016 and 2020, 22 hospitals (18 private and four public) are to be built. Thousands of visas are ­expected to be issued by the emirate to attract qualified staff from all over the world. Significantly, the report, though it does not mention Chennai by name, identifies cities in India as sources for personnel. A drain of qualified medicos can soon be expected to begin. The plan also pointedly states that Dubai needs to attract ­patients who are currently going to India for ­treatment.

The master plan, which envisages the emirate offering multi-speciality services, is targeted at the same user groups that Chennai caters to – Arab nationals, people from the Commonwealth of ­Independent States, Africans and those from Southeast Asia. On the anvil are packages that cover visa, travel options, places of stay, sightseeing and, of course, treatment. Most significantly, Dubai believes that apart from the medical facilities, its infrastructure, safety record and friendly atmosphere will make all the difference. Dubai aims to cater to 500,000 international patients by 2020.

It is time that Chennai wakes up to this threat. After all, its doctors, nurses and other para-medical staff are probably the most likely to be enticed. Secondly, when it comes to infrastructure, there is no denying that Chennai, no matter how international it claims to be, cannot hold a candle to Dubai. There are, of course, enough and more reasons for this, all of which are regularly touted, but the truth is that our city is struggling for basic amenities and is still a destination only because there are no better options as yet available. You only need to contrast Chennai’s current ­ratio of 2.1 beds to 1000 population to the WHO’s norms of 3 per 1000 to get a picture.

What is noteworthy is that the Government of Dubai is taking an active interest in promoting the new strategy. This needs to be contrasted to what has happened in Chennai, where medical tourism came about largely because of various private initiatives and not ­because of any State-inspired drive. It cannot be denied that some of the Government hospitals in the city are centres of excellence, but it is highly doubtful if any of them is in a position to cater to even upper class local residents, leave alone international visitors. Even in Dubai it can be seen that the plan is to bank more on private initiative than State sponsorship, but the State is keen to play a role as a facilitator by creating a framework for such an industry to develop. This is akin to the way industrial ­estates were set up in our city in the 1950s and IT Parks came up in the early years of this century. Can we now expect a ­similar master plan for im proving infrastructure and promoting the medicare industry in Chennai/Tamil Nadu?