"You can't stop this; it is as fundamental as life," says Vishal Bali, CEO of Wockhardt Hospitals Group, one of India's fastest growing private hospital chains.
You might have guessed that Bali was talking about the globalization of healthcare, but more specifically he was commenting on worldwide consumer demand for high quality and affordable healthcare.
In an effort to serve India's surging middle class, Wockhardt hospitals have cropped up across the nation over the past decade and a half. Its size, technology adoption, medical staff reputation, and affiliation with Harvard Medical International have made Wockhardt one of the strong healthcare brands in the country's rapidly growing private healthcare system.
A relatively young company, Wockhardt Hospitals Group wields significant influence in the region. "The agenda of healthcare in India is in the hands of private healthcare," Bali told me in a phone conversation last week. With little government investment or oversight of healthcare, private companies spar for business and the best physicians.
Given the size of India's self-pay population and emerging economy, Wockhardt's primary business opportunity doesn't come from the patients it gets from the West. At the same time, Bali sees an enormous opportunity for his hospitals to continue on as a destination for Americans and Europeans, mostly baby boomers who are looking for quick and inexpensive access to elective procedures like joint replacement, hip resurfacing, and spine and heart surgeries.
"[Boomers] can't wait for U.S. healthcare to fix the system and bring down the cost of care," says Bali. "We don't do soft medicine or cosmetic surgery at all. We are basically focused on areas I call serious medicine … these are truly the life saving and life enhancing surgeries."
Wockhardt serves uninsured and underinsured Americans, who pay for care out of their own pockets, but like many destination hospitals, the system has also begun negotiating deals done with American insurance companies. In fact, Bali says Wockhardt has recently performed surgeries on five Americans, but under terms of the agreement he cannot disclose any specifics.
"We've already done that," he says. "We are already treating employees from a particular corporation in the U.S." Even though U.S. employers and insurers are keeping the details of these deals quiet for now, Bali says that economic pressures will cause a significant and swift increase in the number of employer-sponsored insurers that add global hospitals to their networks.
To Bali, everything old is new again. He sees a parallel between the ways medical travelers sought care some 20 years ago and the so-called new wave of medical travelers. While the first group consisted of people with means from all over the world who were spurred by the lack of access to quality healthcare and traveled to U.S. academic medical centers, Bali says today's medical travelers have means but are motivated by the overall perceived value of select healthcare services.
"It is no longer about lower cost care," he says, "but about high-quality care at a lower cost."