No diagnosis of any disease could ever come at a good time. But when Tiffany Yang’s mother was diagnosed with cancer last year, the news truly came at a really, really bad time.
The coronavirus had hit Malaysian shores by then and the country was going into its first movement control order phase. Almost overnight, Yang – who lives in Taiping, Perak with her family – found her mother’s treatment options curtailed by travel restrictions.
“It was a really tough time for our family because everything was so uncertain due to Covid-19 and cases were rising every day. Planning for my mother’s treatment was especially challenging during this time.
“Apart from looking up the best hospitals and doctors, I also had to plan for the right accommodation, apply for a permit to travel and take note of the SOP (standard operating procedures),” says Yang.
After much research, Yang decided to admit her mother into a cancer-dedicated hospital in George Town, Penang.
It was at the hospital that Yang first became aware of the concept of medical tourism in Malaysia. She had seen a special counter at the reception area dedicated to healthcare travellers.
“The hospital helps to make travel arrangements and book hotels for the patients and their family members,” says Yang.
As Yang was quite familiar with Penang, she reckoned she didn’t need the help of a concierge to navigate around the island city. However, amid the pandemic, she says she could see how such medical tourism services can be useful to out-of-towners seeking treatment at the place.
That being said, Yang did wish that she had known sooner about the medical tourism services as it could have been useful when she was planning the trip from Taiping to the hospital in Penang.
Over the years, Malaysia has consistently been ranked one of the best destinations in the world for medical tourism.
The country is globally renowned as a safe and trusted destination for a variety of treatments such as in-vitro fertilisation or IVF for women, cardiology, oncology, orthopaedics, neurology, dental, aesthetics and general health screenings.
But it’s an achievement that eludes the radar of many Malaysians such as Yang.
That ignorance is a given since the healthcare travel sector is typically built on the basis of attracting international patients seeking treatment outside of their country of residence.
Besides, international patients make for far more lucrative business.
In 2019 alone, the healthcare travel industry in Malaysia collected RM1.7bil in hospital receipts, with the spillover effect into other industries contributing an estimated RM7bil in economic impact.
The aforementioned figures account for air travel, accommodation, food and beverage, leisure activities and more.
Time to rebrand
Last year in July, Malaysia was among the first countries in the world to implement a dedicated medical travel bubble for healthcare travellers. But the reality is that international mobility remains tricky and like most tourism-reliant sectors, the country’s healthcare travel industry has buckled under the weight of the pandemic.
Stakeholders would need to reinvent themselves to move forward in a post-pandemic world. Experts say it’s now high time to cater to domestic healthcare travellers, a market that has long been overlooked in the past, to help revive the industry.
“The domestic medical tourism market has never been properly strategised, despite its existence and importance,” says Professor Dr S. Mostafa Rasoolimanesh, associate professor and director at Taylor’s University’s Centre for Research and Innovation in Tourism (CRiT).
According to him, the lack of focus on domestic healthcare travellers over the years has been a missed opportunity.
“In reality, there are many locals who travel to other cities and destinations (in Malaysia) to seek treatment because of high quality services. In the post-pandemic era, our tourism industry has no choice but to focus on domestic tourism, and this calls for a rebranding of domestic tourism, including medical tourism,” he says.
Prof Mostafa also pointed out that medical tourism data is often skewed towards international patients, which makes it harder for healthcare travel providers to access relevant information that can help them tailor services to locals.
Meanwhile, Tourism Educators Association of Malaysia president Dr Mohd Raziff Jamaluddin also thinks domestic medical tourists would play an important role for the sector’s recovery.
“Domestic medical tourism is the industry’s sole hope of survival, possibly until 2023,” says the fellow researcher at the Institute of Business Excellence in Universiti Teknologi MARA.
Mohd Raziff, however, cautions that stakeholders should be realistic in attracting local healthcare travellers.
“Domestic visitor numbers have decreased dramatically by 45%, while average spending per trip has decreased by 30%, indicating that the tourism industry faces challenging times ahead. Only 4.2% of total expenditure is spent on medical and wellness activities, or about RM12 each trip.
“While these statistics are difficult to swallow, looking ahead, perhaps now is the moment for industry stakeholders to learn, or unlearn and relearn, the fundamentals of healthcare services,” he says.
Both Prof Mostafa and Mohd Raziff say hospitals and medical tourism providers need to rebrand themselves to capture the domestic market.
“The first step in planning domestic medical tourism is repackaging products to appeal to various customer demographics. The middle-income group is the largest spender in Malaysia, and identifying products in medical and wellness is critical for domestic medical tourism to satisfy this group’s requirements,” says Mohd Raziff.
He adds that the government should provide more tax relief for medical and wellness-related expenses that would encourage the recovery of the healthcare travel sector.
Prof Mostafa says it’s also vital that medical tourism providers make a clear distinction between international and local healthcare travellers in their promotional efforts.
“For international tourists, medical providers have been branding Malaysia as a great destination with competitive prices, and they market hospitals and their packages. But strategies for local tourists are different. Specific strategies for domestic tourists should include highlighting certain specialists in certain hospitals,” he says.
Grass is greener
Of course, on the other side of the coin, there are locals who prefer to seek treatment abroad.
It all boils down to where patients – regardless of nationalities – can get the best treatments at the best value, says Mohd Raziff.
“People in developed countries such as the United States, Britain, Japan, and Germany, for example, seek medical care overseas due to the affordability and services provided by private hospitals in developing countries.
“The decision to receive treatment abroad is frequently motivated by the economic value of a better overall experience than receiving treatment at home,” he explains.
That same principle also applies to Malaysians who travel regionally for healthcare. According to Mohd Raziff, local patients have begun seeking treatments in other tourist destinations such as Thailand, Indonesia, China, and India, which provide better value for money.
The challenge now is to retain these local patients and make them medical tourists in their own country.
Prof Mostafa says medical tourism providers need to step up efforts to appeal to local healthcare travellers.
“The service providers need to rebrand themselves for domestic medical tourists by highlighting their competitive advantages to provide higher experience and service quality compared to their competitors. Hospitals and healthcare service providers need to highlight their expertise and brand themselves in certain specialisations,” he explains.
Destinations, too, have an important role to play in reviving Malaysia’s medical tourism landscape.
“They can brand themselves as medical tourism destinations focusing on domestic tourists to attract patients from other states.
“For example, local authorities and tourism organisations in Penang can brand the state as a medical tourist destination apart from being a heritage, food or nature tourism destination for locals,” Prof Mostafa adds.
Some private hospitals in the country, on their part, have started catering to domestic medical tourists when international borders were closed at the start of the pandemic.One such healthcare provider is KPJ Healthcare. The group has more than 28 specialist hospitals located throughout the nation.
“Domestic healthcare tourism is high on our agenda to support the government initiative to rebuild Malaysia’s economy and the tourism industry,” says KPJ president and managing director Ahmad Shahizam Mohd Shariff.
He adds that healthcare travellers seeking treatment here can also avoid going through the hassle of international travel requirements amid the pandemic.
“Focusing on medical tourism would definitely overcome some key barriers in rebuilding the domestic tourism industry, as healthcare declaration, safety issues, travel restrictions, and quarantine durations will not be an issue as these items will be managed by our hospitals,” he explains.
Prior to the pandemic, KPJ’s medical tourism patient revenue contributed 73% to the overall earnings compared to local expatriates, which was at 28%. However, as at June this year, this trend and demand has shifted to local expatriate patients at 83%.
Catering to domestic medical tourists makes good business sense for hospitals during this challenging period. But expatriates aside, there’s also a demand for medical tourism packages among Malaysians now, says Ahmad Shahizam.
He believes that if hospitals can offer attractive health screening packages that are bundled with elements of tourism or travelling, it would attract domestic tourists and in turn help spur the sector.
“Malaysians nowadays are more conscious and aware of the importance of total wellness versus just seeking treatments for illnesses. The prolonged travelling restrictions and long MCO periods have made most of us more aware of our mental health as much as our physical health.
“On this basis, I believe with the right value proposition, where leisure meets healthcare, Malaysians would sign up for medical tourism packages,” says Ahmad Shahizam.
The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), an agency under the Health Ministry, says hospitals need to step up their medical tourism offerings to remain competitive and boost the confidence of healthcare travellers.
“As we reach post-pandemic normalcy, we foresee that there will be some adjustments made across the sphere for healthcare providers. Healthcare facilities will have to arm themselves with necessary SOP and infrastructure to support and deliver a much safer and enhanced patient experience, driven by excellent service delivery,” says MHTC chief executive officer Mohd Daud Mohd Arif.
He adds that tourism offerings must also adapt to changing consumer behaviours as a result of the pandemic.
While the agency was established mainly to facilitate foreign healthcare travellers to private hospitals in Malaysia, MHTC recognises the role of domestic medical tourists in the sector’s recovery, post-pandemic.
“Once the nation reaches herd immunity and travel restrictions begin to ease, we highly encourage Malaysians to support our local tourism industry to revive our economy,” says Mohd Daud, adding that stakeholders must join hands to help revive the medical tourism sector.
“Concerted efforts from both public and private healthcare players during this pandemic must be commended for their agility and adaptability in handling a health outbreak of this scale. We must continue this momentum moving forward,” he concludes.