Potential hindered by petty ad rules

 

Rigid rules on medical advertising have placed Malaysian doctors and hospitals at a disadvantage in global medical tourism.

This is a stark contrast to doctors and medical institutions overseas, whose websites include virtual tours of hospitals or clinics and testimonials from their patients.

Conservative local doctors argue that advertisements have nothing to do with medical skills or treatment but, in the real world, branding and promotion are inevitable. Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai wants it both ways. While he claims his ministry will do its best to help promote medical tourism, he is firm that any form of advertisement should not breach the medical code of ethics.

Less than three years ago, the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) lifted the advertising ban imposed on registered medical practitioners. Unlike doctors in some foreign countries who can pose on their websites to promote their services, Malaysian doctors are only allowed to put up tiny photos with their names, qualifications, job titles, telephone numbers and places of practice in any form of advertisement. The Health Ministry’s Medicine Advertisements Board (MAB) must approve all medical advertisements, including websites, in advance.

Over the years, there have been many complaints over the rigid guidelines on such advertisements. Advertising agencies too, are controlled, actual copies of advertisements must be submitted to the board for approval and no changes are allowed to the copy after approval. MAB’s control has also stopped the advertising industry offering foreign advertisements. Even healthcare facilities and medical tourism agencies wanting to advertise in the media in Malaysia, or use advertorials, are not allowed to actually name the healthcare facilities.

No one will pay to advertise if they cannot name the hospitals, the types of treatment available or the list of medical specialists. Even advertisements on medical tourism in other countries must get approval, and only general information is allowed, not specific promotion on healthcare facilities or hospitals.

Overseas healthcare facilities and tourism organisations are now advertising in foreign magazines which are on sale in Malaysia, and untouchable by the MAB, but Malaysian doctors and hospitals fear that if they advertise in these magazines, the MAB could bring charges of breaching the medical code of ethics.

Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr Khoo Kah Lin would rather be a little conservative than over-advertise. He feels that the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) and the healthcare industry can always discuss ways to make medical tourism more attractive, and that some doctors have a tendency to make excessive claims to boost medical tourism.

Malaysia is not the only country to impose strict guidelines on medical advertisements. In China, advertisements on hospitals and doctors also need prior approval from the Ministry of Health and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce. Hospitals are discouraged from advertising and applications rarely get approved.”

Dental and cosmetic surgeries do openly advertise, while private hospitals opt for advertising on public transport such as buses and metro trains. The law in China has been tightened so only basic information on medical organisations like the name of the hospital, address, type of treatments and business hours are allowed.

Many private hospitals want to highlight the types of treatment they offer, rate of success and rate of complications for each and every type of treatment. Putting up such information is a form of transparency that allows patients to choose.

In Thailand, private hospitals advertise their range of services but avoid naming their doctors or specialists. To avoid any violations of rules, some even present their advertisements to the Thai medical council for review and approval. Like in Malaysia, medical practitioners are not allowed to stake claims, using superlatives like “world-class, world-renowned” or “best” in their advertisements. They can only list the types of services available.

Syed Hussien of The National Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (NCCIM) wants the Ministry of Health to set up a health tourism promotion council to promote and market Malaysia as a premier medical tourism destination. He argues that there are overlapping roles in promoting medical tourism by three ministries; health, international trade and industry and tourism. He argues that lack of effective marketing strategy means Malaysia has lagged behind Thailand and Singapore in this sector.

A Medical Tourism Board will be set up in Penang to help promote its hospitals overseas, said Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai.He added that hospitals in the state would contribute to support the board that would then run campaigns abroad to attract medical tourists. By avoiding detail on how this would work, he was saved from trying to explain how a campaign with rigid advertising restrictions would work. It appears that you can only advertise Malaysian medical tourism with adverts that are so bland as to be ineffective.

The message from Malaysia is a clear warning to other countries. If you want a strong medical tourism industry, the various government bodies must work together, not against each other. With ever more countries and hospitals competing for foreign patients in a much tougher market than 2008, don’t blame the recession or hospitals if advertising controls, poor marketing, or other factors which governments have control over, cause your country to get fewer medical tourists than you expect.

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