By Doreenn Leong
Healthcare travel is seen as a key economic growth sector for the country but the growth momentum was halted when the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in many countries imposed lockdown and travel restrictions.
According to the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) chief commercial officer Yazmin Azman, it is expecting between 70% and 75% drop in revenue this year from RM1.7 bil in 2019 mainly due to the impact of Covid-19.
“The industry aimed to grow hospital revenue earnings to RM2 bil in 2020, this was before If Covid-19 happened. We had 1.3 million patients, including foreign patients; expatriates and students last year
“We are resetting to 2012 numbers. This (revenue decline) won’t be a long term negative. What we do to recharge will determine how fast we recover.
“We are seeking investments from the stakeholders and government. We are trying to bounce back to original target (RM2 bil) within 3-4 years. If we don’t play our cards right, this could take up to eight years,” she said.
Yazmin explained that one of its strategies to bounce back is to invest heavily on branding,
“Trust is important. For example, we can ride on the positive sentiments on how Malaysia is handling Covid-19. We should focus on thought leadership,” she shared.
As it is, she pointed out that Malaysia is the number one medical travel destination by volume in 2018. Malaysia healthcare earned RM1.5 bil in hospital receipts in 2018.
Yazmin added that Malaysia is well known for cardiology, neurology and fertility treatments. There are currently about 250 private hospitals in the country.
“The most sought after treatments include oncology, cardiology, IVF, health screening, orthopaedics and neurology. Malaysia is recognised for its seamless end-to-end patient experience with the aid of technology. Everything is done remotely, making things easier for people,” she explained.
Malaysia has been recognised as the ‘Best Country in the World for Healthcare’ from 2015 to 2017 and 2019 by US-based International Living, a magazine and online portal which caters to seniors.
The UK-based International Medical Travel Journal has also named Malaysia as ‘Destination of the Year’ for healthcare travel from 2015 to 2017, the same year medical tourism arrivals reached the one million mark (1,050,000) in Malaysia for the first time.
MHTC, which is an agency under Ministry of Finance, is tasked with promoting Malaysia as a medical tourism destination under the ‘Malaysia Healthcare’ brand and has seen healthy growth in both the number of tourists visiting Malaysia to attend to their healthcare needs and the revenue generated by these visitors.
The medical tourism sector in Malaysia saw a healthy growth over the past seven years and has recorded a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16% between 2015 and 2019. This is well ahead of the global average of 10-12% and Asia-Pacific’s 12-14%.
However, Yazmin believed there are still challenges in the industry.
“One of the things we are trying to fix on medical tourism is why can’t we have medical inventory on one platform? This makes sense as hospitals see similar cases, etc. But it is almost impossible to get everyone on the same platform because of distrust.
On a positive, the pandemic has been an opportunity for many countries which are in the forefront in terms of telemedicine services. As many countries are still devoting their hospitals to Covid-19, Malaysia can step up its telemedicine offerings.
According to Pantai Hospital KL consultant physician and rheumatologist Dr. Benjamin Cheah, as healthcare systems get burdened, patients are looking for alternatives. The benefits to the patient are threefold: Better access, cost and outcomes.
“Can technology help? Yes, in terms of reaching out to patients, but healthcare needs a lot of personal touches, no matter how technology advances.
“There are areas where we can have a lot of improvements and investment in technology can help. Should establish international partnerships, research and innovation are also crucial to distinguish ourselves,” he added.
Asia-Pacific’s telemedicine market is expected to grow from US$8.5 bil (RM36.2 billion) this year to US$22.5 bil by 2025, according to a report from Market Data Forecast.
Regulations in many countries make it difficult to consult a doctor abroad but the growing acceptance of remote consultations is improving the availability of healthcare for underserved communities across Asia.
However, Cheah emphasised that telemedicine puts a large burden on doctors.
“A lot of work on this are not reimbursed or recognised. How do we compensate for the time spent on telemedicine? It is just a telephone call on steroids. To continue care, we need collaboration with providers in other countries,” Cheah explained.
Yazmin added that there are also pitfalls of trans-boundary pharmaceutical.
“We cannot treat a patient from another country – legislation barrier, countries may not allow certain drugs or recognise qualification of doctors. There should be an Act to stand the test of time,” she added.