Can Malaysia be the preferred healthcare hub in the region? If so, what needs to bedone to ensure it becomes a reality and not just wishful thinking?
MALAYSIA has the potential to become the preferred healthcare hub in the region, but players in the industry believe it is not capitalising on the full potential of the medical resources, including expertise available locally.
KPJ Healthcare Bhd chief financial officer Alvin Lee said Malaysia was lagging behind Singapore and Thailand as a healthcare hub for medical tourism in the region.
“Our medical facilities are at least at par with these countries in terms of service and price but we still lose out as a preferred destination for treatment,” he told StarBiz.
KPJ is a leading public-listed healthcare company in Malaysia with 17 hospitals nationwide and six hospitals abroad in Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Middle East.
Lee said 20% to 30% of KPJ's revenue, which was approaching RM1bil this year, was derived from its overseas medical hospitals. The figures are growing fast, indicating that medical services are in great demand in the countries KPJ services.
“Ironically, healthcare services for foreign tourists in Malaysia represented only about 3% of our total revenue, despite us being an established healthcare provider,” he said.
However, Lee said profit margins were attractive in this segment of the healthcare industry.
So what is holding Malaysia back?
To be fair, countries such as Singapore and Thailand had been promoting themselves as a healthcare hub several years ahead of Malaysia and had gained a strong reputation as good service providers, especially for medical tourism.
According to Lee, income generated from health tourism in the more established private hospitals in Thailand were currently contributing about 30% to their total revenue, while some prestigious private hospitals in Singapore managed to achieve 50% revenue contribution.
“Private hospitals there know that many foreigners seeking healthcare service are prepared to pay well if they are satisfied with the service levels,” he said, adding that these hospitals had gained their clients' trust.
“We in Malaysia have to play catch-up with the rest of the players in the region.”
Lee said for the country to develop a competitive edge in medical tourism, it would require a concerted effort by all parties.
The Government (especially the Health Ministry) and private healthcare providers needed to collaborate further to promote, educate and develop delivery systems and logistic channels that directly impact the industry in a positive manner.
“For instance, in Thailand, they have the Green Lane visa issued to foreigners within 24 hours to allow them entry into the country for medical treatment,” he added.
The Singapore government works closely with private healthcare providers participating in overseas exhibitions by sharing a booth and extending their support and network.
A managing director of a local private healthcare hospital said Malaysia also promoted healthcare services to foreigners.
“The website www.malaysiahealth.com was launched a couple of years ago to promote health tourism to Malaysia. It's a one-stop destination or platform for healthcare services as well as a medical and holiday consultant,” he said.
The managing director said the website provided useful information on medical services available here and suggestions on private hospitals for tourists.
“While the collaboration between the Health Ministry and private hospitals is a positive one, we believe more can be done to further promote medical tourism in Malaysia,” he said.
He said based on the number of foreign tourists seeking medical treatment/services here each year, it would probably take at least another five years for the country to reach the current levels of such tourist arrivals in Thailand and Singapore.
On what Malaysia could do to leapfrog ahead, he said: “We need to be much more aggressive with marketing and promotional activities locally and abroad and channel those interest to a platform that delivers what we (the Government and private hospitals) promise.”
He also cited the country's excellent tourism promotional campaign “Malaysia Truly Asia” which benefited many hotels that were affected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
“There was a deliberate focus and action plan to aggressively market the country as a favoured tourist destination. The Government even provided grants to ailing hotels during the crisis period to revive the industry. Now, many hotels are enjoying good occupancy rates,” he added.
He said medical tourism should piggyback on the "Malaysia Truly Asia'' promotional campaign and be included as an optional facility to the whole package.
A medical specialist with Assunta Hospital said Malaysia's healthcare providers were second to none.
“It's unfortunate there are insufficient opportunities locally for many medical practitioners as well as other healthcare providers such as nurses to show their talent and improve their income despite being highly skilled in their profession. This is due to the lack of creativity to increase demand for their services,” he said.
On whether local patients would be sidelined if private medical hospitals treat more foreign tourists, the specialist said there was always a possibility but it was unlikely as medical practitioners were duty bound to help all patients.
The specialist said the Government and private healthcare organisations should work together to ensure local patients were not neglected.
“A workable structure and system can be achieved if the authorities and healthcare providers meet regularly under a consultative approach to find ways acceptable to all parties and possibly have it legislated,” he said.