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Date [ 2014-01-15, 04:53 ]

The country has rapidly become one of the top players.

The award winning Prince Court Medical Centre.

Until a few years back, the term ‘MEDICAL TOURISM’ was not even invented. Today it is big business with a number of countries, especially in Southeast Asia, vying for it.

In the Beginning

During historical times, medicine in Malaysia was very ethnic and home grown. When the Europeans, especially the British, arrived in this part of the world, western medical practices were introduced.  Then with independence in 1957, medical care began to grow gradually and then rapidly transform itself to what it is today.

Along the way, as one of the well developed nations of this region, there began to emerge as a spin-off of its healthcare – medical tourism! 

It is to the credit of the Malaysian government, that it took an early start with the setting up of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) and putting it under the wing of the Ministry of Health (MOH). It brought together the country’s well known heritage of hospitality and a solid medical foundation. It did a lot in highlighting Malaysia as the preferred healthcare travel destination in the Asian region. Of course its final aim is to be the first choice as a medical tourism destination with world-class healthcare services.

Thus In 2005, the MOH established a small unit to promote medical tourism. As the momentum built, it was clear there had to be strong branding. Thus the Malaysia Healthcare logo and tagline "Quality Care for Your Peace of Mind' was launched in June 2009.

It was only after this was the MHTC actually formed. It would streamline healthcare travel service providers and industry players in both private and government sectors so as to make it easy for those seeking treatment to come in.

The MHTC reports to an Advisory Committee chaired by the Minister of Health and co-chaired by the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department heading the Economic Planning Unit (EPU). Members of the Committee are appointed from representatives of the government and the private sector involved in healthcare travel. The Committee is responsible for advising on policy issues and setting directions for the healthcare travel industry.

As the industry grows, problems and issues are bound to crop up among industry players, the government and others. All, especially the government, were determined these would not affect the medical tourists and their treatment would be seamless and quick.

It was crucial the implementation was right and the proper strategies and programmes were drawn up. Thus from the very beginning consultation was carried on between the government and various stakeholders, including the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia (APHM), Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE), Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), Tourism Malaysia and Malaysian Dental Association (MDA). These had the task of developing programmes to bring Malaysian medical tourism to the forefront.
Melaka, a place to relax after an operation.

Everyone realizes no matter how good a product you have, the right promotions and advertisements are needed to bring it to the public’s attention and focus. So the MHTC nowadays coordinates promotional activities for Malaysian healthcare providers and related stakeholders. MHTC acts as a focal point or a 'one-stop centre' for all matters related to healthcare travel, to facilitate enquiries on policies and programmes on healthcare travel, development and promotion, including solutions on matters related to healthcare travel.

The most recent was the 2nd. Malaysia International Healthcare Travel Expo held in October 2013 at the Sunway Pyramid Convention Centre, Subang. Billed as a multifaceted medical tourism experience, it highlighted the many specialties within the industry. A combination of exposition and conference,
it brought together hospitals, hotels, resorts, insurance companies, MNCs, bankers, financial institutions, recuperation, rehabilitation and aftercare centres, travel agencies, airlines, government agencies,  ground transportation, retirement villages, wellness, medical spas and even traditional and complementary medicine.

Without realizing it, MHTC has become not only the promotional arm of the Government but also a referral point to assist healthcare travellers and members in the healthcare travel industry in Malaysia.

The Scene Today

Since the formation of the MHTC, quite a number of healthcare facilities are registered with it as medical providers. MHTC’s CEO, Dr. Mary Wong Lai Lin gives an insight. “There are 72 healthcare facilities registered with MHTC, where 62 of them are hospitals and 10 are ambulatory care centres. Generally, most of the big hospital chains in the industry are already a member of MHTC. To name a few, KPJ Healthcare, Pantai & Gleneagles Hospitals, Ramsay Sime Darby group of hospitals, Prince Court Medical Centre, Island Hospital, Adventist Hospital and Loh Guan Lye Specialists Centre to name a few.”

Thus travelers who choose these hospitals may feel safe as these are always under the scrutiny of MHTC. Those who wish to become medical providers have to undergo a stringent selection process. For starters, only the hospitals that are well-equipped and catered to receive and handle medical tourism are approved and registered.  A selection committee consisting of representatives from both the private and government sector will stringently evaluate and select these medical providers to ensure that the standard of service and quality medical care provided within the industry is continuously upheld. It also upholds the Malaysian Government’s intention of having medical tourism driven by the private sector with government assistance for its full development.

So does this mean those not registered with MHTC cannot run a medical tourism centre? Dr.Wong explained,”No. However, the non-MHTC registered members will not be able to enjoy the incentives offered by the government to the members in promoting medical tourism.”

This means these unregistered health centres would not be entitled for such incentives as the Investment Tax Allowance. This consists of two parts, the first a 100% tax rebate on capital expenditure and the second, Double Tax Deduction for Accreditation. There are other perks too and it would be wise to be registered with the MHTC for health providers.
Penang and its fabled beaches.

The Medicine Business

Private hospitals have been quick to take off and now offer expert services in such medical fields as cardiology, oncology, aesthetic surgery, robotic surgery, fertility treatment, bariatric surgery, orthopaedics, dental implants, ophthalmology, neurology and aesthetic surgery. 

As befitting its role, the MOH keeps tabs on these hospitals to see they are providing the right care. But competition being what it is, in the game of one-man-up-ship, these hospitals have internationally recognised accreditations, such as from the Joint Commission International, which accredits healthcare organisations and programmes in the United States. The result is up to the par medical services in comfortable surroundings and that all important factor – pricing! 

By keeping their prices comparatively low and competitive, these hospitals have made medical tourism big these days. It is estimated globally to be between US$ 24 – 60 billion. No surprise then that in the past few years there has been fierce competition for the medical tourism top spot among countries like Singapore, Thailand, South Korea and some others in this region. How does Malaysia fare against them?

“Even though Malaysia is a late comer to the medical tourism industry, the phenomenal increment of medical tourists over the past 3 years has put Malaysia in the global radar. There is more news and blogs coverage on Malaysia in the past few years that made it a strong contender in the region,” Dr.Mary Wong was quick to point out.

She further emphasised, “The rise of Malaysia’s healthcare standard in recent years is commendable. We are not only able to provide a high level of healthcare standards to our patients, but also new innovative approaches to treatments, second to none, such as the KLSMC Stem Cell’s therapy in musculoskeletal treatment. Infrastructures are very much in place in supporting foreign patients seeking treatment here. Currency exchange advantage makes our treatment more affordable.”

John Shanning should know as he had searched the Internet for alternatives against expensive heart surgeries at home. Shanning found himself directed to the Loh Guan Lye Specialists Centre where the needed CT Angiogram for him would cost just MYR1, 500. If he were to have it in the USA, it would set him three times back and have him pay out close to USD4.500.

The American stated, “I wanted something affordable yet of good quality. I got both and more here in Penang. The after-care treatment was excellent and gave you the feeling the nurses were actually humans! I am sure to tell family and friends once I get home.”

Cost and Care

The US-based provider of medical travel guidebooks, Patients Beyond Borders, has placed Malaysia among the top ten medical tourism destinations in the world. She drew about 670,727 travellers last year. Thailand meanwhile had about 1.2 million and Singapore about 610,000 medical travellers.
Its table of comparative cost, based on procedures and specialties of US costs, showed the range of savings. It would also be able to provide detailed comparative cost and procedure data by country upon request. 

Brazil: 25-40%
Costa Rica: 40-65%
India: 65-90%
Korea: 30-45%
Malaysia: 65-80%
Mexico: 40-65%
Singapore: 30-45%
Taiwan: 40-55%
Thailand: 50-70%
Turkey: 50-65%

Its CEO, Josef Woodman disclosed that most patients for Malaysia come from Indonesia as high quality medical care is still not available across the straits. He added that,”Malaysia remains one of the top value medical travel destinations, with savings of up to 80 per cent, and cultural compatibility.”

The others who make up the top ten countries from which most of the healthcare travellers came to Malaysia are from India, Japan, China, Bangladesh, United Kingdom, Nepal, Australia, USA and the Middle East.

Dr.Wong made about 13 forays this year to further promote Malaysia as a medical tourism haven, and revealed,”The most response I got was from the countries on our top ten list.” She went on to disclose that,”They have made cardiology, orthopedics, obstetrics and gynaecology as the most sought-after treatments. On top of that, these medical tourists, all though there is no specific official ranking available for Malaysia, as different countries may report their numbers in different denominations, nevertheless, have ranked the country as the No. 2 Best Havens for Quality Care Overseas in the World. and No. 1 in Asia (result based on the International Living’s 2013 Health Care Survey). Besides that, Prince Court Medical Centre was also named No. 1 World's Best Hospitals for Medical Tourists 2013 by Medical Travel Quality Alliance (MTQUA).

Body Beautiful

It is human nature to want to look gorgeous and so cosmetic or plastic surgery came on the scene. At the moment it cannot be said Malaysia is well known for its cosmetic surgery. Neighbour Thailand has more members of our Third Sex crossing the border to return as transsexuals. Japan and South Korea are known for turning ugly ducklings into swans. Very few realize Malaysian surgeons too are able to do high quality and safe cosmetic surgery. At last count there are 37 private clinics performing plastic, cosmetic or reconstructive surgery in KL itself, and this not counting the private hospitals also involved in it.

Still, there are a number of tourists coming in for cosmetic surgery. A deciding factor seems to be the cost. Take the case of Judy Lancaster. A young woman of thirty, she flew in from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur for breast reconstruction. It would have cost her NZD9, 000 (RM27, 000) back home. But the bonus was, for what the New Zealand surgeon was going to charge her, in Malaysia it left her with the option of taking in some other cosmetic works. Lancaster’s breast job only cost her NZD4, 500 leaving her with extra cash to take in liposuction, Botox for crow’s feet and lip augmentation. That meant for the price of one New Zealand surgery she had four in Malaysia! A pretty good bargain!

But the Mecca of cosmetic surgery is Penang because there they throw in a holiday for you after the cuts have been made. Apart from the beaches there are the shopping malls and the island’s fabulous food. So companies like Beautiful Holidays, find their business doubling over the years as word-of-mouth gets around.

 This holiday and cosmetic surgery package has the company working in association with three private hospitals in Penang. The cost can range from RM25, 000 to RM40, 000 and this is not so much for the surgery done as for the chosen hotel accommodation. The hotels clients can choose, range from nothing less than 4 to 5-star status and all on the famous Batu Feringghi beachfront. No wonder then, though the surgery takes around a week to complete, clients stay longer to soak in the sea, sun and sand before heading home.

“Most of those who fly in are women from the UK, Australia and New Zealand,” confirmed Tony Leong, a Director of Beautiful Holidays. “The most popular form of reconstruction is for breast augmentation, stomach tuck-ins, full face and neck lifts. Men too fly in for a job and they concentrate on the face, do rhinoplasty and liposuction.”

What then of costs for the country as a whole. Trade figures put it down as USD5,500 for a full face lift, in the US it is USD12,500. Rhinoplasty is at USD3,600 against the US cost of USD6,200. So there is no doubt it is easier to get to look beautiful here in Malaysia than elsewhere.

Another fact that has emerged is that more and more Malaysians are undertaking cosmetic surgery these days. The draw factors are Hollywood stars and other celebrities. Most women want the lips of Angelina Jolie while men opt for Brad Pitt.

“What is also noticeable,” revealed Dr.Chin Shih Choon, President of the Malaysian Society of Aesthetic Medicine,” increasing number of women want a V-shaped chin. This is a craze prevalent in South Korea today.”

Botox, laser facelifts and other tissue tightening surgical procedures are used. The latest is radical where the bone is cut to realign the lower and upper jaws. South Korean women desire very small faces and now many Malaysian women are following suit by going over to South Korea and coming home looking like china dolls!

For those yearning to look beautiful, the private hospitals well known for this type of treatment are the Beverly Wilshire Medical Centre, DEMC Specialist Hospital, Prince Court Medical Centre, Gleneagles Penang, and the KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital,
Tradiional Chinese medicine at the Golden Horses Health Sanctuary.

Body Repair

Not many of the public are aware there is such a thing as Sports Medicine. Of course those in the sports fraternity do and know where to go. One such spot is the Kuala Lumpur Sports Medicine Centre (KLSMC).

It opened its doors in 2005 and has not looked back.  It treats locals and foreigners who make up 22 per cent of its clientele. Patients, once they step in, are subject to the standard procedures, from administrative arrangement, such as registration to specialist consultancy. For the treatment procedure after admittance, KLSMC makes sure that the patients’ treatment programme is based on that specific patients’ requirement. The emphasis is on providing a customized treatment plan to all patients, no matter where they are from.

KLSMC has patients from all over the world. Britons top the list of foreigners coming in, followed by Indonesians, Americans, Australians, Dutch, Indians, Germans and the French. You would expect the Singaporeans to stick to their home country as it prides itself as always being technically ahead, but surprisingly they come in at No.7 on this list.

Accommodation is an important issue when undergoing treatment, KLMC has single units or suites available in-house. It also encourages a look at its website where information on hotels and transportation available around its area is displayed. Affirmed its Marketing Executive, Josceyln Teoh, ”This might especially be relevant if they have family accompanying them on their stay.”

On  KLSMC’s treatment of patients, she informed, ”Patients who seek medical treatment abroad are usually well-educated. Prior to coming to KLSMC, they would have seen a doctor in their home country, and have done their research and due diligence through the internet. Therefore, they are well prepared and informed of the treatments that they seek. We make sure that the patients are well informed during their stay on all information they might need. We do our best to advise them on local customs, holidays, etc. that may be foreign to them as well as guide them on any questions they may have. Proactive communication helps to minimize such difficulties.”

Apart from making sure their patients settle in well, KLSMC also prides itself on the fact that it employs the latest technology in sports medicine. It aims to live up to its name as a one-stop sports medicine centre and so has made itself as the front liner in orthopaedic surgery, in particular articular cartilage regeneration, specialising in conditions of the knee, shoulder, hand, foot, hip and spine.

Patients with severe injuries that warrant cartilage regeneration or replacement surgery are given the option of going for a total knee replacement surgery or cell-based regeneration therapies like stem cell therapy (including articular cartilage regeneration) and arthroscopy.

Total knee replacement (TKR) is a viable option for the elderly, at least 60 years and above. Patients with TKR can resume daily activity faster, and it is a much simpler and cheaper procedure at the moment compared to stem cell therapy. However, TKR patients will not be able to run, jog or lead very active lifestyles after the procedure. Hence it is more suitable for older patients.

Stem cell therapy on the other hand, is a new option for patients who previously had to resort to TKR. It is a better option for younger patients who still intend to go back to playing sports or leading an active lifestyle.”

KLSMC has quickly established itself, as many patients have commented, as a world class centre. Dr Saw Khay Yong, consultant orthopaedic surgeon and founder of KLSMC, has made a medical breakthrough with his articular cartilage regeneration for stem cells. Brian Smaluch, a stem cell research scientist from Portland, USA, suffered from extensive knee damage since he was a teenager and had been to such countries as Switzerland, Italy, Switzerland and Singapore in search of treatment. Even regular treatments in the US did not help. But after being treated at KLSMC, the scientist says he is improving. 

Patients have been positive about the way KLSMC is run. Teoh reveals, “Our patients often comment on the easy access they have to all the facilities they need. KLSMC offers everything under one roof – meaning there is very little wait and very little distance to all our units. This makes for a smooth and easy stay – which is important when aiming for the quickest and best recovery. Most importantly is our array of specialized doctors who can attend to the individual patients’ specific need.”

KLSMC has prepared itself for the challenges of the future by creating a niche for itself. Unlike most other hospitals, KLSMC maintains a research unit focusing on Stem Cell Research. It already has gained international recognition for its research done on Articular Cartilage Regeneration, which is patented in the US and can be considered a Malaysian technology.

In the meantime, it treats its patients who mainly lead active lifestyles in the mid to high income bracket. Most of them in need of KLSMC’s specialized orthopaedic  treatment.

Brian Smluch finally found relief at KLSMC

…and Down in Penang

Malaysia lends weight to its assertion that Indonesia is a very important market for its medical tourism by initiating a new ferry service between Swettenham Pier in Penang and Langsa in Acheh, Indonesia. The service started this February and is expected to boost both education and medical tourism.

Currently there is one service, operated by Langkawi Ferry Services, running on Mondays and Wednesdays from Penang to Langsa, and from Langsa to Penang on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Penang Port Sdn Bhd (PPSB) Managing Director, Datuk Ahmad Ibnihajar informed, “This direct ferry service will be more convenient for Indonesians who intend to come to Penang from Langsa. Currently, those residing in Langsa have to travel all the way to Medan or Acheh to catch a flight to Penang. Now they have direct access to Penang.”

Some 100 Indonesians per trip are expected to board the ferry to Penang. While for some it would be a sightseeing tour others would come in for medical treatment. Thus the ferry service is a reflection of the state government’s seriousness in promoting Penang as a medical tourism haven. A look at the medical providers will show the majority of hospitals involved in medical tourism are in the capital, the Klang Valley and Selangor. So it is no surprise when Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng announced, ”This sudden boom in medical tourism has resulted in a shortage of bed space for our people in government hospitals.”
The demands of medical tourism have been met so far, more by government set-ups like the Penang Hospital. This has led the state government to hold discussions since last year with companies interested to go into medical tourism. It appears Penang is not so much interested to establish a wider base of medical tourism as to make sure government hospitals do not run short of space for Malaysians because of an overfill by foreigners.

Actually not true! It is just that Penang is trying find a balance between providing good subsidized healthcare for Malaysians and foreigners taking up bedspace and specialists’ time at the expense of locals.

In the end, the state government is determined to make Penang a Medical City. So the call has gone out for private hospitals in Penang to increase bedspace and expand their range of specialists. This should prevent spillovers into government hospitals. Taking up the government’s call is the Penang Adventist Hospital which now has a brand new High Dependency Unit.
Rising above this is the government’s call for greater cooperation among private hospitals. Lim’s words were, “We want to see greater collaboration between private hospitals to promote Penang as a medical tourist destination.”

He would in fact be referring to the Penang Hospitals Alliance, which was set up for this very purpose. It can be assumed that it was in a state of inertia. Otherwise you would not have the Chief Minister saying ,”It is high time the hospitals under the alliance come together to produce an action plan to achieve a better milestone in medical tourism.”  

He went on to disclose,” We have high quality healthcare facilities here and also at affordable rates. So we should now tap into this segment, especially Singapore, where their healthcare rates are very high and we can attract them to come here for our medical services.”

Penang has done quite well so far and has the potential to increase medical tourism figures. In 2011, it received more than 300,000 medical tourists and therefore accounted for 60 per cent of total arrivals for the country as a whole.

The Plus Points

Since Malaysia is a multi-racial and multi-lingual country, we are able to communicate in several languages, minimizing the communication barrier. Fortunately, most patients are able to manage basic English. However, a translator will be arranged when required,” informed the spokesperson  from KLSMC.

What with terrorism attacks worldwide, entering some countries is like being wringed in a sieve. Fortunately Malaysia is relatively free from suicide bombers and other terrorist dangers. Provided one has the proper papers, getting through immigration and customs is actually a breeze. Most care givers too are on hand to help out, if need be.

Most tourists can come into Malaysia without a VISA. However, those countries which do require a VISA can arrange for one. The Immigration Department is the liaison party to get this organized. MHTC will render assistance for VISA extension (for genuine cases with supporting documents from the hospitals) from the Immigration Department (also subject to Immigration Department’s final approval).

At KLSMC, patients handle visa and logistics independently. However, in some cases, if needed, KLSMC will issue a letter to support their visa application, indicating the treatment details and the duration needed for it, which are important details in visa applications.

Most patients’ usual response to “Why Malaysia?”  would be -  it is a warm and tropical country, with great diversity and good food. It is a place where patients can enjoy themselves and relax while having their treatment and recovery. It also has comparable medical care standards within the Southeast Asian region and which is relatively cheaper compared to some other countries.

If there seem to be more Westerners or English-speaking peoples coming to Malaysia for medical tourism, we can thank the British. Large chunks of western culture are ingrained into Malaysians and with English being widely spoken, medical tourists can feel at home quite fast and well.

Not only do tourist attractions abound, as one tourist put it “..in squeaky-clean Kuala Lumpur, the capital, but also Penang for its beach life and Malacca for being a UNESCO site.” No wonder many stay back even after their operations are over.

Safety – with the government as a watchdog, there is very little chance for hospitals to go off-track . You cannot go wrong if you pick a medical provider that is registered with the MHTC!

Furthermore, all private medical facilities in Malaysia are required to be licensed under the Private Healthcare Facilities and Services Act 1998 and work closely with MOH, which issues stringent measures of safety and quality standards. Malaysia now has six Joint Commission International (JCI)-accredited hospitals, which have aggressive plans for private facility expansion over the next five years.

Travelling to Malaysia

It was not so long ago that medical bound travelers would head to India or Thailand for treatment, but now the country that crops up in their mind is also Malaysia. The country  has firmly etched a place on the medical travel charts.

This is evident with the counting of figures. Last year, more than 600,000 medical travelers sought treatment in Malaysia. The numbers continue to grow at a 35% increment.

If the question ‘Why?’ arises, the obvious answers are that Malaysia’s facilities and expertise are on par with those in India and Thailand. Add to this the comparable costs on most medical procedures, particularly for the more elaborate cardiovascular and orthopedic treatments, and a no-contest situation comes up. It also has the advantage of being much less costly than neighbour Singapore, just across the Causeway. Malaysia with its excellent facilities and health care, manages to keep prices 30-50% percent lower from its island neighbour.

Malaysia shares borders with Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. More than 80% of these cross-border patients come from Indonesia, where the middle class have outstripped the rudimentary healthcare facilities and so seek better quality treatment. Malaysia with its ethnic Chinese population, descended from Chinese immigrants during the colonial era, helps draw patients from China.

Those from the Middle East appreciate Malaysia’s moderate Muslim tempo, and makes Middle Easterners feel very compatible with the country and Malaysian Muslims. Besides there are no car bombs blowing up all over the place.  The latest flux of  medical tourists is from Aussie land. Fleeing rising healthcare costs they can easily adapt to the care given here as the language of communication is English.
It is to the credit of Malaysia, that  over the years, it has managed to continue improving its healthcare infrastructure and quality while keeping prices low. Malaysia now competes with India for the value-seeking patient, as well as the affluent patient seeking specialty care. But what can be considered a benchmark of Malaysia’s improved ranking is the fact that global healthcare consumers from the EU and North America are beginning to trace Malaysia on the medical travel map and closely study what it has to offer.

These can be gained from the enquiries made to the 40 private hospitals engaged in medical tourism and which are part of the total of the 113 Malaysian private hospitals. Two of the leaders are Kumpulan Perubatan Johor or simply better known as KPJ and  the Sime Darby networks. Both now have a good proportion of international patients.

That Malaysian Extra

Malaysian private hospitals have taken it upon themselves to give its medical tourism patients  a series of exceptional, thorough and inexpensive physicals. A dazzling array of tests and examinations, including blood test, bone density scan, chest x-ray and treadmill tolerance can be had for as little as USD500.

Not many realize that Malaysian hospitals were the creators of “well-man” and “well-woman” packages. This is comprehensive, low-cost physicals, screenings and other tests, promoting preventive care. Packages include pre-employment, executive screening, maternity and more. Health travellers can also choose from a wide array of diagnostic packages, including heart, stroke, cancer and bone scan.

Just goes to show, when you arrive in Malaysia, you are in Good Hands! abc@koreanpress.net

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