How Malaysia is developing as a medical tourism destination


As the local healthcare systems develop, the Asian medical travel sector has enjoyed a period of growth in a difficult global healthcare market that has yet to recover from the financial crisis of 2008. Malaysia came relatively late to the medical tourism game, riding on the coat tails of Korea, Singapore and Thailand. As one conference attendee described the country, it has been “the best kept secret in medical tourism”. But it is very clear that the work of MHTC, led by Dr Mary Wong,  and the Association of Private Hospitals in Malaysia (APHM), led by Dr Jacob Thomas, is paying dividends. Malaysia has climbed into the top five of medical tourism destinations worldwide (IMTJ Market  Analysis).

A well funded, well resourced and well executed initiative

 MHTC was set up by the Malaysia Ministry of Health in 2009 with the aim of establishing Malaysia as the destination of choice within the Asia-Pacific region.  The MHTC is well resourced to drive Malaysia’s medical tourism initiative. With a significant annual budget, 40 staff and working closely with the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia, the organisation operates MHTC Careline, a dedicated call centre for international patients, and is establishing a medical tourism welcome lounge at Kuala Lumpur international airport. MHTC offices operate in Dhaka, Jakarta and Hong Kong (serving Greater China, Japan and Korea).

A solid foundation

The Malaysian healthcare sector in general and MHTC specifically, has made concerted efforts to build its reputation and market share within medical travel market. Malaysia starts from a solid foundation. Within the international marketetplace, the country’s history as a British colony means that English is widely spoken, and the infrastructure and government institutions mirror those of the West.  As a Moslem country, it benefits from an affinity with outbound markets in Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Middle East. Malaysia’s proximity to Indonesia means that it is the logical choice for residents of a country of 250 million people who are seeking better healthcare abroad.

The private hospitals are the main focus of the current initiative. All private hospitals are licensed under an Act of Parliament, and 72 out of 253 hospitals in Malaysia are registered with MHTC to handle international patients. The Ministry of Health monitors health and safety, hospital performance and outcomes; all hospitals must meet the standards set by the Malaysian Society for Quality in Health, which is itself recognised by ISQUA.  Some healthcare providers, such as Gleneagles, and the National Heart Institute have made an additional investment in JCI accreditation to support their efforts in the international market. The government has been pro-active in providing financial support for medical tourism. Tax incentives are offered for hospitals to help fund accreditation, and local expertise has been by removing restrictions on the licensing of foreign specialists. Visa restrictions have been relaxed and speeded up to facilitate the requirements of international patients.

The medical tourism offering

Standards of patient accommodation in the private hospitals (and in those public hospitals that take international patients) are of a high standard and are above or in line with what Western patients may expect in a modern private hospital. Provision of international patient services is well developed. Quality standards and outcome data are in general on a par and in some cases better than their local competitors within Asia Pacific and the country’s private hospitals perform well against international standards. . There is little that needs to be put right in terms of the service offering; patients should have no concerns about selecting Malaysia as their medical travel destination.

Pricing is competitive, providing a lower cost alternative to Singapore within the region.

It is government policy that hospitals must price healthcare services for international patients at the same level as for domestic patients. Such an approach is to be welcomed and should be adopted as standard practice within the market.

Current source of medical tourists

Malaysia’s international patient profile reflects the regional nature of medical tourism. The great proportion of patients come from Indonesia followed by India and Japan. Bangladesh, and Myanmar are also important source markets. Indonesian patients travel to Malaysia for medical services and treatments that are not available within their own country or that they feel are not of suitable quality. Patients are attracted by the short travel times, range of services, reasonable cost, and cultural match in terms of religion, language and food. The driver in this significant source market is clearly not just cost; it is about cross border healthcare; patients travelling from one healthcare system to another system that can better meet their needs, for treatments which they are prepared to self fund. The majority of these medical travellers are self funding and are from Indonesian middle and high income groups. The drivers for Bangladesh and Myanmar are very similar.

There is a small but growing market for cosmetic surgery and dentistry with Australia and New Zealand being the main source of patients.

The numbers

Under the Private Healthcare Facilities and Services Act 1998, the Malaysian Ministry of Health (MOH) makes it compulsory for all private healthcare facilities to report their patient statistics, including the number of medical tourists. MHTC works closely with the MOH on this structured approach to data gathering.

The reported number of 583,000 medical tourists for Malaysia for 2011 includes all hospitals embraced by MHTC. 49% of the total is accounted for by Penang.  The Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs, and adjoining cities and towns in the state of Selangor) contributes 35% to the total.

MHTC estimates that 40% of the total quoted number are expatriates living mainly in the Klang Valley area, rather than medical tourists. In this area, private hospitals report between 5% and 15% of their admissions are medical tourists; such as Sime Darby estimates the share at 6-10% of and Gleneagles at around 15%. The true figure for medical tourists into Malaysia is probably nearer 350,000. This total may contain a high proportion of outpatient visits rather than inpatient admissions which explains the apparent disconnect between the total reported figure and the inpatient admission numbers reported by individual hospitals.=

Future plans for medical tourism

MHTC is conducting introductory workshops for healthcare facilitators, planning the provision of additional offices in target markets and the development of better approaches to data collection, customer service and patient satisfaction.


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