The idea of going for a holiday while undergoing medical treatment has drawn flocks of medical tourists to Malaysia, but increasing competition and global economic challenges hinder the growth of this industry.

Earlier this year, Malaysia was ranked among the top-four medical tourism destinations by International Living. Just last year, Malaysia saw 850,000 medical tourists entering the country, raking in RM900 million in revenue.

“Most medical tourists in the region are coming from neighbouring countries – Laos to Thailand, for example. Cultural similarity is a big reason. Also, they prefer to travel shorter distances,” said Ghazali bin Musa, a professor of business strategy and policy at the University of Malaya.

Lower costs and range of halal options are top draws

Cost of many medical procedures in Malaysia are half that in many other countries, a major drawing factor for medical tourists, apart from reasonably priced accommodation and a good public transportation system.

A paper published by academics from the University of Malaya and Wageningen University also found that Malaysian hospital were more inclined to publish information regarding acceptable private insurance providers and provide links to travel agencies on their websites.

Furthermore, Malaysia has eight facilities with the Joint Commission International (JCI) certification, a gold-standard for healthcare service providers worldwide.

Sherene Azli, CEO of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), cites the range of halal medicines and treatment options, which are both gelatine- and porcine-free, on offer as another competitive advantage.

With prayer facilities available on-site and healthcare facilities catering to requests of having same-gender caregivers, it is not surprising that Malaysia was the most popular country in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for Muslim tourists to visit, according to the Global Muslim Travel Index 2015.

Slow growth over the last two years

The industry has seen a slow-down in growth over the last two years. Between 2014 and 2015, the year-on-year (y-o-y) increase in medical tourists was less than 1%, in comparison to the 21% increase in 2013.

Thailand remains the dominant player in the Asia-Pacific region. However, with Malaysia’s revenue levels rising by about 15% per annum, according to a report by Frost and Sullivan, the country is well placed to expand this industry in the coming years.

The government spends RM20 million annually promoting and developing medical tourism. The 11th Malaysia Plan, also aims to develop three health care hubs in the country – Penang, Malacca, and Johor Bahru.

Further efforts to expand the industry include an agreement between Malaysia Airlines and MHTC for joint marketing activities, which will see discounted rates for visiting medical tourists and sponsored flight tickets for medical familiarisation trips to Malaysia.

A sector with significant growth potential

“Malaysia needs to further develop health care resources, particularly specialists and ancillary health care workers, and technical health care skills, as there is a resource gap,” said Rhenu Bhuller, a partner at Frost & Sullivan.

“They are very much interested in looking at prevention, simple things like detoxification, or alternatives like traditional complementary medicine,” says Azli, referring to the rising international interest in traditional therapies as a potential area of exploitation.

Furthermore, there is a need to look into Malaysia’s healthcare advertising regulations, which could be hindering promotion through hospital websites. Local hospital websites lack information regarding patient rights and obligations and had lesser illustrations compared to Indian and Thai hospitals.

“By attracting international patients, you’re increasing your standards,” says Taylor Stobie, a business development executive at the US-based Medical Tourism Association. “You’ll have to up your medical standards – your equipment and facilities, the quality of your doctors – to attract these foreign patients.” MIMS

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