Medical tourism: How Malaysia can make its mark as a hub

The Ministry of Finance predicts that the number of healthcare travellers will increase from one million to two million by 2020. This follows the tax exemption from medical bills, a New Straits Times (NST) report stated.

According to deputy finance minister Datuk Ir Amiruddin Hamzah, Malaysia amassed RM1.3 billion in medical traveller revenue in 2017. Also, approximately RM4 billion came from other non-related healthcare expenditures such as accommodation and transport. NST reported that the government aims to double the revenue to RM2.8 billion by 2020.

Medical tourism is certainly a growing industry in Malaysia, with brands such as AirAsia seizing the opportunity to promote Penang as the country's top healthcare destination alongside Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC).

To become the region's main healthcare hub, improvements will need to be made to Malaysia's medical tourism scene to help it fulfill this dream. According to Sahana Prabhakar, director, health at Edelman Malaysia, said the country needs to invest in more state-of-the-art hospital infrastructure and medical staff. Citing Thai hospital Bumrungrad International as an example, Prabhakar said the hospital sees approximately 1,000 international patients on a daily basis and has over 900 physicians across 55 specialties. Malaysia would have to build similar capabilities to cater to the growing number of healthcare tourists and become the leading healthcare hub in Southeast Asia, she explained.

Also, while MHTC has identified the country to be the centre of excellence for cardiovascular and fertility, based on the current demand, it should also consider classifying private hospitals based on the bed capacity, specialties and cost. This, she said, will help Malaysia manage and navigate the surge in healthcare tourists it is anticipating over the next few years.

"We must also consider packaging healthcare tourism in such a way that patients not only seek treatment here, but also extend their stay and spend some quality family recreation time in some of the beautiful locales in the country," Prabhakar added.

While Singapore and Thailand are well-known for healthcare tourism in Southeast Asia, Malaysia still stands a chance in coming out on top. She described Malaysia to be a "unique destination" for patients seeking healthcare treatment outside their home countries due to its central location and affordable travel options with low cost airlines. Unlike other neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia does not just cater to wealthy healthcare tourists, as a broad range of healthcare tourists seek medical services locally.

Meanwhile, McCann Health's general manager Nicole Lade said while the reasons for healthcare travel to Malaysia are "logical" and "practical" at a rational-level, they are not loyalty-driving reasons that create a particular affinity for getting health issues treated in Malaysia. To become a healthcare hub, Malaysia needs to increase its attractiveness both as a tourist destination and in the kinds of healthcare solutions it can offer, Lade said. These include having healthcare solutions that are not offered elsewhere on an every day basis. She added:

It would be prudent for Malaysia to tap into current cultural trends in target countries and government agendas.

For example, with the growing awareness of and interest in wellness and prevention rather than illness and treatment, Malaysia can tap into the increasing demand for wellness and prevention solutions and activities such as health screening, meditation, nutrition and fitness.

"Aligning it with more of a lifestyle-driven experience and combining this alongside specific medicine and treatment through exciting, interesting health-focused trip packages could help set Malaysia apart and also potentially bring in further upper-middle class demographics," Lade said.

She added that there is also a growing market for halal medical tourism that Malaysia can further develop on, such as exploring the innovation of halal pharmaceutical products which do not contain pork derivatives. This therefore allows the country to cater to the needs of tourists from Indonesia and potentially the Middle East.

Currently, Malaysia offers patients halal services and options, for example, bovine-based insulin versus porcine-based products, as well as ensuring Islam-compliant services such as prayer facilities and having caregivers of the same gender.

What Malaysian marketers are doing to engage healthcare tourists

In a previous interview with A+M, Sunway Group Healthcare's deputy managing director and Sunway Medical Centre said when it comes to patients, the hospital looks to differentiate itself by being a one-stop facility which provides an all-inclusive range of options and convenience. This is while giving patients the best possible care.

Currently, Sunway Medical Centre’s marketing strategy is focused on raising awareness of these comprehensive products and services that it offers. One way to do so is through regular engagement with relevant groups by updating them with its latest services, new specialists and activities.

“Healthcare is all about trust. Hence, the delivery of exemplary care and support to customers is the brand’s priority and with this, comes positive word of mouth. Ultimately, everything we do is aligned with our motto of improving the lives we touch, which leads to peace of mind for our patients,” Khoo added.

Similarly, Ramsay Sime Darby Healthcare's primary target audience is also the patients themselves. However, Veneesa Sinsua, group digital marketing, Asia said previously that its larger pool of target audience are individuals who can influence the decisions of the primary target audience by providing assistance or advice.

One way to reach out them is via digital marketing. Sinsua explained that data analytics and the measurement of data are critical as analysing relevant attributes helps to increase the brand’s chances of success.

But despite all of the potential medical tourism holds, Edelman's Prabhakar said while the country caters to global healthcare tourists, it too must also ensure local patients have equal access to quality and the latest treatments. This is because, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, Malaysians blame the hospitals for high cost of healthcare.

"The public healthcare system is one of the best in the region, but it is crowded and budgets are limited. While we cater to international patients, we must not neglect our own," she said.

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