October 09, 2010

Apollo bets big on Africa, health tourism

Apollo Hospitals , Asia's largest healthcare chain , is betting big on Africa, not just to expand operations there but to also attract what is called health tourism from the vast continent.

Apollo Group chairman Prathap C. Reddy, who pioneered corporate healthcare in India, is particularly upbeat on Mauritius, where the hospital chain already has a presence for the past four years, as well as Nigeria and Uganda.

" Africa is going to be the next big thing in everything that's going to happen. China is smart and is present in a majority of African countries trying to build its wealth and influence. Fortunately China is not in a position to compete with us," he said.
"So, I think, if we won't miss the boat, we will keep ahead of China," Reddy, a trained physician himself, told IANS in an interview, speaking about his plans for the group, which has 8,500 beds in more than 50 hospitals in India and overseas.

Reddy said five African countries had already expressed interest in collaborating with his group and an in-house team was studying the feasibility of the projects to finalise on at least two in the near term. He, however, did not name the countries.

"In Africa, Apollo Bramwell hospital in Mauritius is our show piece. We had the first anniversary three years ago. Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam himself thanked me. He said it was a 'Kohinoor' (an invaluable gem) in their healthcare system."

The Apollo founder, who had been conferred India's second highest civilian award by President Pratibha Patil earlier this year, the Padma Vibhushan, said the group was also partnering with the Indian government on a Pan-Africa tele-medicine programme.

"It is a great opportunity and a wonderful project. They don't have to pay for anything. It is free. The government of India is funding it. Nigeria and Nigerian doctors are so happy with this project," Reddy said.

At the same time, he was also keen to promote health toursim in India, especially out of Africa, and feels there is a potential for at least five million health tourists a year. "But we need to work on set guidelines. We need to publicise it through the government."

He said the reason why he was keen to draw health tourists from Africa was that during his own university days in Britain, he saw a large number of overseas health tourists flying in for treatment.

"I conducted a study and found that among the large number of patients who came to England for treatment, Africans were the second largest. So there is a tremendous potential for this in India. We are also much more cost-effective."

He did not think health tourism will come down in India following some adverse reports on its hospitals after a recent Lancet study noted that a multi-drug resistant super-bug had its origins in a patient admitted to a hospital in India.

"This study is a little premature. We all know infection and resistant bugs are present in all healthcare systems in the world. But I can't undermine the study and say we don't have it," Reddy said.

"At the same time, I'm also able to control infections and maintain the discipline in infection control. That's why we have a Department of Microbiology. We strictly go by the guidelines given for infection control," he added.

According to Reddy, the group's target now was to add 3,000 beds to its network by 2013 at an estimated cost of around Rs.2,000 crore ($440 million) and was confident that the deadline will be met.

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