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Opening doors for health sector businesses in the world’s biggest democracy

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TRADITIONAL and historic ties between the British and its healthcare system and India have always gone some way to opening doors to doing business in the world’s biggest democracy.

This mutual respect and understanding was more than evident on the recent week-long trade mission which I helped to lead to three of India’s biggest and most important centres of excellence in healthcare.

Along with health specialist Chris Born, it was my pleasure to accompany 18 delegates from 11 UK organisations on visits to meet health sector leaders in Bangalore, Kochi and New Delhi.

India is certainly a country which provides potentially profitable and long-term business opportunities in the healthcare sector. The Indian Government is committed to improving health provision for its massive population – and its healthcare sector is remarkably innovative and forward-thinking in many ways.

But there are enormous challenges ahead. Figures show only 5 per cent of GDP goes on healthcare in India, compared with the UK’s average of around 8 per cent. Around 70 per cent of the healthcare workforce is in cities, but 70 per cent of the population live in rural areas.

Despite robust economic growth over the past two decades, India faces significant challenges in tackling non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Although India boasts 750,000 doctors and 1.1 million nurses, practitioner density is about one-fourth what it is in the US and less than half that of China.

When it comes to healthcare, India is a country of contradictions.

For example, our visit to private super-specialty Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Delhi showcased a truly world-class facility and a leader in quality and patient care across India. And though accessibility to the wider Indian population remains prohibitively expensive, private hospital treatment is remarkably cheap compared to developed countries.

But 80% of the population are trying to access 20% of the free healthcare provided by the state because, while costs are low by Western standards, the wide disparities across the country mean the rural poor have difficulty accessing quality healthcare.

There are clearly opportunities for the UK healthcare sector to do mutually beneficial business partnerships in India. But the competition is tough.

As a correspondent in The Economist observed recently: “Today everyone wants to be best pals with India. France says its relationship is ‘special’; Russia believes its position is ‘special and privileged’; America says its ties are ‘indispensable’; Japan reckons its bond with India is ‘intimate’; and Germany counts itself as a ‘very close friend’. Even China hails “two ancient civilisations, connected by mountains, rivers and cultures”.

For Healthcare UK, the aim is to be at least one of India’s ‘partners of choice’. And judging by the good relationships created on our trip in September, there is certainly something to build on.

The UK, of course, has some inherent advantages. Our shared history, the common legal system and language and the breadth of people-to-people and family links make us obvious partners.

On our September trade mission we also had the advantage that many of the delegates had an Indian background, and we had successful meetings at five hospitals, and with several educational institutions, state government officials and local healthcare delivery organisations.

The delegation was focused in four specific areas – the improvement of healthcare services, education and training, digital health, and hospital infrastructure.

And one of the most beneficial meetings we had was with representatives from the Association of Healthcare Providers in India. The organisation has 11,000 members, and has accredited 250 of India’s leading private hospitals. Meeting with this group really gave the delegates on the trip access to some of the very best healthcare practitioners in the country.

One of our main challenges as leaders of the mission was to ensure our delegates, some from the NHS, some independent providers, met with the right calibre and level of business leader.

Visiting India is exciting and stimulating, but it is also expensive getting there and requires significant time investment. The delegates who came with us wanted to know they were talking to the right people.

That is where having Healthcare UK behind the trip is so important. Our contacts can help open doors which wouldn’t normally be possible for those travelling without specialist back-up and we work closely with our diplomatic and UK Trade & Investment network in India to deliver the best possible programme.

We also have experience of what it’s like to work in India. We can probably make a decent judgement on how seriously to take a business lead – in India ‘Yes’ doesn’t always actually mean ‘Yes, definitely’. Indian people are particularly hospitable and welcoming, and saying ‘No’ or ‘We’re not interested, thanks’ isn’t how they are likely to respond to a business proposition at an introductory meeting. It therefore requires a patient approach to understand the requirements and interests of the host organisation before the conversation can go to the next level. Healthcare UK and UKTI can certainly help UK providers understand the characteristics of the India market and the nuances of doing business there.

From our feedback from the delegates on the trip, there were certainly enough meaningful discussions and genuine leads to encourage UK providers to pursue follow-up propositions. We will be helping our UK businesses target these leads over the next few weeks.

In the meantime we are busy organising a further trip, possibly in February. Feel free to get in contact if you are interested in joining us.

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