A private Indian hospital group that has been under investigation since authorities uncovered illegal organ harvesting at its New Delhi facility in June is opening a telemedical center in Phnom Penh this weekend that will refer Cambodians abroad for transplants and other services.
Apollo Hospitals, the largest private health care group in India, says it intends to serve poor and critically ill Cambodians living in rural areas.
But it has not yet determined how those patients will reach its Phnom Penh office for online consultations with overseas doctors, how they will be transported to its facilities in India, or who will pay for their treatment.
At a news conference on Thursday, Syed Sarfraz Quadri, deputy general manager of Apollo’s international health care services in Southeast Asia, said the for-profit Apollo Telemedicine Center would encourage both wealthy and poor Cambodians to travel to India for “critical surgeries like organ transplants or heart transplants or even cancer,” but offered scant explanation for how the poor might afford overseas travel and private medical care.
“We are working out details on the NGOs who can sponsor, and Apollo can come forward in subsidizing the rates,” he said without elaborating.
Mr. Quadri said Apollo planned to train local doctors in Phnom Penh and India, as well as establish a network of doctors and nurses across Cambodia who would refer patients to its Phnom Penh office, located in the De Castle Royal apartment building, where staff would connect them to medical professionals in India via video link.
“That process has not yet begun. So far, I think we were quite busy, initially, to launch the center, then we would proceed further,” he said.
Mr. Quadri said Apollo also planned to open telemedicine centers across Cambodia, and eventually provide emergency services.
However, Apollo and its Cambodia-based partner, pharmaceutical distributor Pluton Life Sciences, whose website lists India as one of its largest trading partners, have yet to initiate discussions with Cambodia’s medical fraternity or Health Ministry about how they would work together, according to Pluton.
Indeed, ministry spokesman Ly Sovann said on Thursday that he was unaware of Apollo’s facility in Phnom Penh, let alone the company’s ambitious expansion plans.
Sann Sary, director of the ministry’s hospital department, said he, too, knew nothing about the company’s operations.
Ashutosh Garg, managing director of Pluton, said he approached Apollo after determining that Cambodians often travel abroad for medical treatment.
“Rich people, we found that they go to Singapore for treatment. Middle class, they go to Thailand. And after that, low-middle or middle class go to Vietnam,” he said.
Mr. Garg said Apollo’s facility in Phnom Penh would appeal to all patients by offering medical care at bargain prices.
“I can’t give you the figures, but it will be nearly 30 percent of the Singapore cost,” he said. “So it is quite affordable.”
The telemedical center will not be staffed with doctors or nurses, Mr. Garg said. Instead, it will employ paramedics and administrative employees who can arrange overseas hospital visits, as well as visas and travel itineraries for patients traveling to India.
Apollo’s troubles in India began in June, when police launched an investigation into the company’s Indraprastha hospital in New Delhi after uncovering an illegal organ-harvesting ring at the facility.
Organizers were accused of buying kidneys for an average of $4,480 and selling them on the black market at a profit, Reuters reported.
At least nine people, including two assistants of a nephrologist employed by the hospital, were reportedly arrested over the scheme, in which traffickers allegedly gave victims fake identification documents to trick hospital staff into thinking they were the organ recipients’ relatives, according to Reuters.
The hospital subsequently issued a statement claiming it was the “victim of a well-orchestrated operation to cheat patients and the hospital.”
“While all due precautions were conducted, the use of fake and forged documents was used for this racket with a criminal intent,” the statement said.
The Indraprastha hospital did not respond to a request for comment.
In Phnom Penh, N. Sitlhou, first secretary at the Indian Embassy in Phnom Penh, said on Friday that he was unaware of the police probe.
“That is news to me…. You should talk to Mr. Safraz,” he said of Mr. Quadri.
He said the embassy facilitated the partnership between Apollo and Pluton and Ambassador Naveen Srivastava was to speak at a gala inaugurating the new facility on Friday night.
During Thursday’s news conference, Mr. Sithou said the embassy issued up to 10 visas each month to Cambodians traveling to India for medical treatment—the majority of whom, Apollo says, are seeking liver or kidney transplants.
Mr. Sitlhou clarified on Friday that visas were only issued to organ recipients who traveled to India with Cambodian donors.
“We don’t give any visa from the embassy unless we have a donor traveling with [the receiver]. They have to be a Cambodian.”