Feature: Big plans for healthcare travel

MALAYSIANS may be having fewer babies nowadays, but that hasn’t stopped our country from becoming a top destination for foreigners seeking fertility treatments.

In fact, such treatments are a big draw in getting medical tourists to come to Malaysia to seek affordable and good quality services.

Statistics from the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) show that clinical pregnancy is successful in one in two fertility patients in Malaysia.

With such high success rates, the MHTC plans to make Malaysia the fertility hub of Asia.

It also aims to promote two other popular types of treatment: cardiology and oncology services.

This year will be the first time Malaysia will be launching an international healthcare travel campaign, namely the Malaysia Year of Healthcare Travel 2020 to bring medical tourists here.

Anchored by the MHTC, the year-long campaign also coincides with the nation’s tourism initiative, Visit Malaysia 2020.

While the recent novel coronavirus outbreak does pose a challenge, the MHTC is confident that Malaysia will persevere through it, with a strong healthcare system in place.

“We trust that with Malaysia’s quality healthcare offerings and warm hospitality, we will continue to see an encouraging inflow of healthcare travellers, ” MHTC chief executive officer Sherene Azli tells Sunday Star.

Come April, a blueprint is expected to be unveiled, charting a five-year plan to make Malaysia a choice destination for medical tourists.

But for now, the council is working on the Malaysia Healthcare Industry Blueprint (2020-2025), which will strengthen public and private collaboration in medical tourism.

“The purpose of the blueprint is to provide a roadmap to enhance Malaysia’s position in the region as a choice destination for healthcare travellers, ” says Sherene.

The blueprint aims to increase the revenue generated from healthcare travellers to a minimum of RM4.2bil by 2025 with a growth that is sustainable.

“This will translate into an impact of more than RM12bil on the economy in 2025, ” Sherene adds.

To reach out to more medical tourists, the MHTC is also working with the Health Ministry’s Medical Advertising Board on how regulations on advertising and promotional activities can work in favour of getting more health travellers to come here.

In 2016, Sunday Star highlighted how our hospitals and healthcare facilities not only win awards and meet international standards, but they do so at rates cheap enough to have foreigners flocking here to use them.

Malaysians, however, are going overseas for medical and aesthetic procedures as many are unaware of the world-class healthcare treatments available within our borders.

And now, medical tourists are being lured away by neighbouring countries where information and testimonials are easily available online.

Four years on, our doctors and hospitals are still bound by the same stifling regulations.

High demand for services

Nevertheless, Malaysia receives high demand for key areas like fertility and cardiology services, and the MHTC aspires to make the country a centre for these treatments.

“There is high demand, especially from within our current focus countries like Indonesia, China, India, Vietnam and Myanmar, ” Sherene explains.

Fertility treatments here are popular thanks to our well-regulated healthcare system.

They are also affordable here, with each in vitro fertilisation cycle costing between US$4,000 and US$5,000 (RM16,500 and RM20,600).

“Malaysia is also reputable in cardiology treatments due to the collaborative efforts between the National Heart Association of Malaysia and the Health Ministry.

“The partnership resulted in development, research and maintenance of quality in cardiology-related treatments and medical services, ” says Sherene.

She says MHTC will also be promoting Malaysia as a centre of excellence for oncology, or cancer, treatment.

Such services are highly sought after by medical tourists from China, Indonesia and Myanmar.

According to the Health Ministry’s Pharmacy Services Division, a discussion was held on Sept 11 last year with the MHTC. Among the issues raised were promotional and advertising activities by private hospitals looking to attract foreign medical tourists.

“Currently, private hospitals are still bound by Section 4a (bb) of the Medicines (Advertisement and Sale) Act 1956, ” a spokesperson from the division tells Sunday Star.

Private hospitals wishing to advertise or promote any healthcare services will still need approval from the Medicines Advertisements Board.

The board can fix conditions or terms of advertisement approval as stated under Regulation 5 (3) Medicines Advertisements Board Regulations 1976.

The administration guide for healthcare facilities and services issued by the board is constantly being updated. This is done during meetings. Decisions made have included allowing medical practitioners to include their name, qualifications and fields of expertise in an advertisement approved by the board.

However, promotions of skills, knowledge and experience are still not allowed.

“Medical practitioners must still adhere to the Malaysian Medical Council’s professional code of ethics, ” the division rep says, adding that patient testimonials about treatments or diagnoses received are still not allowed.

Testimonials are allowed if they do not touch on the medical treatment and instead mention things like the comfort of the hospital, the service standard, and its facilities and transportation.

Growing competition

While Malaysia is equipped with good healthcare services, there are some challenges that lie ahead.

By 2022, the global healthcare travel market is estimated to be worth US$20bil (RM82.7bil).

“All global competitors will be aggressive in claiming their share of the pie, ” says Sherene.

Malaysia has faced challenges in visibility around South-East Asia, as many are unaware of the nation’s healthcare services.

“We have also faced challenges in building and maintaining brand and visibility momentum due to industry-wide budget setbacks.

“However, we have risen above these challenges.

“Once dubbed as the ‘Hidden Jewel of Asia’, Malaysia has been recognised as the ‘Destination of the Year’ by the International Medical Travel Journal for three years in a row from 2015 to 2017, ” she says, adding that Malaysia also received two highly commended acknowledgements in 2018 and 2019.

Sherene believes healthcare travellers have more confidence in Malaysia’s private healthcare as the results speak for themselves.

Rapidly evolving of healthcare traveller demands require fast, personal and effective responses.

“Due to this external pressure, Malaysia’s private healthcare sector has been constantly improving their facilities.

“This includes equipping their facilities with cutting-edge medical technology, investing in devices and enhancement of infrastructure, hiring skilled medical staff and making strategic investments to strengthen infrastructure, ” she says.

Although many more regional players are jumping onto the bandwagon, Malaysia remains a resolute player.

“This is due to our key value proposition of world-class quality care which is affordable and accessible, as well as not easily emulated by others, ” Sherene adds.

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