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Malaysia Medical Travel Sector Marching On

Posted on Mar 07, 2012 by Sergio Ulloa ()

2011 was a banner year for Malaysia's medical tourism industry and with inbound numbers growing at a similar pace this year, the country look set to challenge Asia's other attractive health travel destinations for supremacy in a lucrative global marketplace. The rising costs and increased sophistication of medical treatment coupled with the continued progress, or 'flattening', of the global economy is encouraging many people to look abroad for more comprehensive and affordable healthcare options, a practice now widely known as medical tourism. These macroeconomic factors combined with the falling costs of international travel and communication has seen world class healthcare facilities set up all over the world and auction their services in competitive consumer markets appropriately. International clients looking for alternative healthcare options to what is available in their home countries now have access to many different services worldwide at competitive prices. Asian and Latin America countries have proven to be the most attractive medical tourism destinations so far, as many popular but costly treatments, including transplants and cosmetic surgery procedures, can cost a fraction of the price that they would do in the West, with the added opportunity to avoid lengthy treatment lines in public healthcare systems as well. The ease, affordability and efficiency of pursuing international medical tourism options is something to be considered for patients seeking to fully evaluate their future health procedures. The medical tourism industry in South East Asia has grown at a brisk pace, with the region's annual private healthcare revenues projected to surpass US$100 billion by year-end 2012. Asian governments and private healthcare groups in countries like India, Singapore, and Thailand in particular have been at the forefront of the medical travel marketplace, investing heavily in their healthcare and transportation infrastructure over the past few decades to meet this rising global demand for easily accessible high-class medical treatment at globally competitive prices. Countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines are themselves not far behind and have taken the initiative recently to improve their performance in the international medical tourism market. New figures released this past week show that the medical tourism industry in Malaysia has itself progressed admirably in recent years. Compiled medical receipts from foreign patients reveal that inbound medical tourism spending to Malaysia surpassed RM 509.77 million (US$168.7 million) in 2011, with 578,403 international clients using local health facilities throughout the year. These numbers were well above initial projections of RM 431 million (US$142 million) in revenue from 400,000 medical tourists, and were also up considerably from 2010's statistics, when 392,956 foreign patients visited Malaysia. Demand for high quality medical treatment has rebounded in the aftermath the global economic crisis, and the country now hopes to establish itself among the top players in the Asia Pacific region. In comparison to some of its Southeast Asian neighbors however, Malaysia still has quite a ways to go still to compete in the medical tourism sector. At present 3 countries, Thailand, Singapore and India, control around 90 percent of the market between them, and attract over 1.5 million, 720,000 and 730,000 foreign patients per year respectively. The Malaysian government has long recognized the need to close this gap and launched a separate agency, the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), in 2009 to promote and develop the local medical tourism industry in order to better position Malaysia in the regional health travel market. The MHTC has been tasked with fostering greater public-private sector healthcare collaboration and formulating a unified international promotion strategy for the country's 41 internationally accredited hospitals and 8 ambulatory care centers. To do this, the agency has been given greater access and ability to collate local health industry data. Medical tourism receipts for example are now collected separately from tourist receipts, which are tabulated by the Malaysian Tourism Ministry. Using this data, MHTC Chief Dr Mary Wong Lai Lin revealed to local media recently that Penang had accounted for the highest share of foreign medical revenue in the past year with 49 percent of combined foreign patient revenue, followed then by hospitals within the Klang Valley (21 percent) and finally Malacca (10 percent). The country that accounts for the largest share of these medical tourists meanwhile has continued to be Indonesia, due to the country's close proximity and accessibility to Malaysia. It is believed however that the Indonesian government has become irked at this exodus and is now looking at ways to improve their own healthcare system to better cater to their population and keep them there. According to Dr Lin, going forward the MHTC plan to focus on attracting more clients from Bangladesh, China, Japan, the Middle East and other peripheral Asia Pacific nations, in a bid to further develop Malaysia's international brand. To do this, the country also needs to diversify their medical services offering to cater to foreign patient health demands and industry trends. Medical tourists tend to seek very specialized medical treatments when visiting Malaysia, including cardiac, orthopaedic, oncology and in-vitro fertilization procedures. An increasing number are also coming for elective procedures like cosmetic surgery and dental treatment as well. While Malaysia's medical tourism industry will of course remain driven by the performance of its private medical sector, the MHTC serves as a focal point for prospective overseas clients and will use its position to raise Malaysia's medical tourism profile internationally. Malaysia sees itself as a country that can provide high-quality, safe and affordable healthcare care for a wide variety of tourists. Through this new agency, the government ultimately hopes to encourage the private healthcare sector to invest more in attracting overseas clients, and plans to support them further by resolving policy and administrative issues affecting medical travel, including fast-track immigration clearance, visa applications and more. Having taken note of the progress so far, the MHTC forecast 2012 revenue from medical tourism to hit RM548 million (US$181.4 million) from the 600,000 foreign patients expected to visit Malaysia this year. If they can continue to build upon their strong growth momentum, Malaysia could indeed become a real force in the Asian medical tourism market.
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