Foreign patients nearly double in numbers as country narrows gap with regional rivals
By Teo Cheng Wee, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2012
After years of lagging behind regional competitors, Malaysia is becoming a medical tourism destination, attracting patients from Indonesia and further afield.
Touting quality health-care procedures at relatively low costs, it has benefited from its marketing drive overseas - as well as a rising Asian middle class - to grow its medical tourism receipts by about 20 per cent annually for the last five years.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) chief executive Mary Wong said the number of medical tourists to Malaysia increased from 336,000 in 2009 to 583,000 last year. Receipts from the sector during the same period grew from RM288 million to RM511 million (S$116 million to S$203 million), and are expected to top RM600 million this year.
"News of Malaysia's health-care facilities has spread," said Dr Wong. "More foreigners are coming as they realise that we offer good value for money."
MHTC was formed in 2009 to develop and promote Malaysia's health-care travel industry after this was identified as an important sector under Prime Minister Najib Razak's economic reforms.
Since then, the government has taken measures to attract foreign patients. It relaxed health-care advertising rules to allow private hospitals and clinics to advertise overseas and on the Internet. It also introduced tax breaks and other incentives for private operators to build and expand hospitals.
More recently, MHTC started a hotline and e-mail service targeted at foreign patients, in Bahasa Indonesia, Arabic, Japanese and other languages.
Mr Alvin Lee, chief executive of Pantai Holdings' Malaysia operations which runs 11 private hospitals here, said that Indonesians who visit Malaysia are mostly middle-income earners seeking general treatment.
Many are from Sumatran cities like Medan and Pekanbaru and are more comfortable speaking Bahasa Indonesia. "Indonesia will always be our main market, because of proximity and language," Mr Lee said.
But it is not the only country sending patients.
Just a year after MHTC's first roadshows in Dhaka, Bangladeshis are now among the top 10 nationalities visiting Malaysia for medical care. About 7,400 of them came between January and July, almost triple the 2,500 patients who came in all of last year.
And although Singaporeans are not among the top medical travellers to Malaysia, Dr Wong said their numbers have grown by more than 40 per cent in recent years, from 4,175 in 2009 to 5,900 last year.
In 2010, the Singapore Government began allowing residents to use their Medisave accounts to pay for health care in selected hospitals in Malaysia. Singaporeans mostly come to Malaysia for obstetric treatment and health screenings, Mr Lee noted.
MHTC says it will continue to push Malaysia as a value-for-money destination. It has pointed out, for example, that an angioplasty that can cost US$20,000 (S$24,400) in Singapore and US$13,000 in Thailand costs only US$11,000 here.
"Our doctors are also a good selling point. More than 80 per cent of those in private hospitals are UK-trained and very experienced," said Dr Wong.
Malaysia's medical tourism revenue has been rising more quickly than that of its Asean competitors. From 2007 to last year, it grew by about 19 per cent annually, compared with the 2 per cent to 3 per cent growth over the same period for the more mature markets in Singapore and Thailand.
But overall, it is still playing catch-up. Last year, Malaysia's RM511 million medical tourism revenue fell far short of Singapore's $1.02 billion and Thailand's US$1.2 billion, according to a report released by Frost and Sullivan in June.
By 2020, Malaysia hopes to receive 1.9 million medical tourists and generate RM9.6 billion in revenue.
NEW KNEE COST $9,900
After eight years of jabs and pills to treat the pain in her right knee, Madam Loe Mie Khioen's doctor in Indonesia recently told her she needed a knee replacement.
The mother of five decided she wanted to do the surgery overseas. But being a first-timer, she consulted her friends and family, while her daughter did some research on the Internet.
Eventually, they settled on Kuala Lumpur.
"We chose Malaysia because it's cheaper than Singapore but still offers good medical facilities," said Madam Loe, 65, a housewife from Jakarta.
She went under the knife last Thursday and was discharged yesterday.
Her entire operation and week-long hospital stay at Gleneagles Kuala Lumpur will cost her RM25,000 (S$9,900). A similar procedure in Singapore could have set her back double that amount.
Madam Loe said she was satisfied with the experience and is likely to recommend other people to go there.
"The most important thing for medical treatment is trust in your doctor and hospital. I think we've chosen a good place," she said.