The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council’s lounge at the airport arrival hall allows health tourists to take a breather while waiting to be picked up by their medical providers. (Photos Provided TO China Daily Asia Weekly)
When Malaysian heartthrob crooner Michael Wong’s song Wo Men De Gu Shi became a hit last year, fans hailed it as a tribute to love.
However, the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) has a wider perspective.
It interprets the music video – that shows a young woman being wheeled into the operation theater after being told her case is serious – as a message to boost medical tourism.
That is the reason the song is currently MHTC’s official music video, suggesting that one should take good care of one’s health, while conveying the message that Malaysia has a wide assortment of healthcare services available.
The video has also been launched in Beijing, underscoring the emphasis Malaysia puts on China as one of its top markets. The other major source countries for patients are Indonesia, India, Japan, the UK, US and Australia.
"The number of medical tourists from China has indeed grown from 11,000 in 2011 to 15,000 in 2012,” says Dr Mary Wong, MHTC’s chief executive officer. “We had started promoting and marketing our medical tourism campaigns in China way back in 2011 and we can see that our efforts are bearing fruit now.”
The ministry of health established MHTC in 2009 to develop and promote Malaysia’s healthcare travel industry. Its mandate is to promote global awareness of the nation’s healthcare facilities and services and help the industry to penetrate the global market.
In 2011, the number of patients visiting Malaysia from abroad was 583,000. Last year, the number went up to 671,727.
The revenue from medical tourism has also risen steadily, from 511 million ringgit ($161 million) in 2011 to 594 million ringgit in 2012. Further growth of 5 to 10 percent is expected this year.
Dr Wong outlines some of the prime measures taken recently to bolster this growth.
The MHTC Concierge was officially opened at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in April.
"(It’s) a one-stop-center that provides medical travelers with easy access to all the information needed in order to have a comfortable and fruitful stay in Malaysia,” she says. “(It) answers medical enquiries, disseminates healthcare services information, and facilitates information about transport, accommodation and travel in Malaysia.”
The Concierge center is complemented by the MHTC Lounge at the airport arrival hall where health tourists can take a breather while waiting to be picked up by their medical providers.
Integrated with all this is the MHTC Careline, a phoneline answering medical and travel inquiries from Monday to Friday available in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin. E-mail answers are provided in Japanese, Arabic and Bengali as well, Bangladesh being another growing source country.
Although the Malaysian authorities concede that Singapore, India and Thailand are major rivals for the position of the top medical hub in Asia, Nuwire Investors, an online source for real estate and other investment opportunities, has ranked Malaysia third as the choice medical destination globally after Panama and Brazil. It says the assessment was made on the bases of quality, affordability and receptiveness to foreign investment.
Both foreign medical tourists and investors are drawn to Malaysia, it says, because of the favorable exchange rate – $1 can buy around 3 ringgit – political and economic stability, and the high literacy rate.
According to medical tourism guide Patients Beyond Borders, major medical treatments in Malaysia are about 30-50 percent lower than in Singapore and almost the same as in India.
To direct outgoing medical travelers from the region to its own healthcare facilities, MHTC has offices in Indonesia and Bangladesh and a third one has been just set up in Hong Kong.
KPJ Healthcare, a leading private healthcare provider running 21 hospitals in Malaysia and two in Indonesia, earned about 45 million ringgit from medical tourism in 2011. It says the target now is to raise it by 25 percent by 2020.
KPJ’s foreign patients are mostly from Indonesia, as well as Somalia, Singapore, India and the Middle East. The company has been advocating promoting Malaysia as a health destination to the Arab world. About 8 percent of its own foreign patients are from Arab countries, according to the International Medical Travel Journal.
This could be a lucrative niche market for a nation with Islam as the dominant religion.
Malaysia already enjoys an excellent reputation as a Muslim-friendly destination. A study published this year by Singapore-based Muslim travel consultancy Crescentrating named Malaysia as the top holiday destination for Muslims because of the availability of halal (Quran-compliant) food and services, prayer facilities and the safe environment.
Malaysia outpaced 49 other nations, including Egypt, the UAE and Turkey.
In the near future, there is likely to be another factor boosting Malaysia’s status as a medical destination. This is the plan for the domestic production of orthopedic products, which would further reduce surgery costs.
Sima Medical, a joint venture between Chinese company Naton Medical Group and Malaysian firms OSA Technology and Straits Orthopaedic, is a key player in this. Last year, it announced the investment of 100 million ringgit over five years to manufacture arthroplasty products, used in knee and hip replacement operations.
The homegrown implants from the Penang factory would bring down costs by at least 30 percent. Currently, implants are imported.
Making the announcement, the then health minister Liow Tiong Lai said the government expects the venture to contribute to the overall 4.5 billion ringgit target revenue from the orthopedic sector by 2020.
While both the government and private sector are contributing to the push for medical excellence, Malaysia faces considerable competition in the region.
"As a latecomer to the medical tourism industry, the major challenge for Malaysia is to let the world know that there is a value-for-money, hidden medical tourism destination available to medical tourists globally,” says MHTC’s Dr Wong.
However, the nation’s unique selling point is that unlike in other countries, where medical tourism promotion is led by the ministry of tourism, in Malaysia it is spearheaded by the ministry of health, Dr Wong points out. This indicates a strong emphasis on patients’ safety and quality medical outcome.
"In fact, it’s rather an unusual scenario where you will find the government working closely with the healthcare facilities to promote medical tourism together,” she adds. “This is a good example of the public-private partnership that we practice here in Malaysia.”
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