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Malaysia 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: MEDICAL TOURISM

Despite jumping on the medical tourism bandwagon relatively late, Malaysia is becoming a global hub for healthcare travel.

With around 770,000 health tourists coming to Malaysia in 2013, Malaysia is ranked in the top five destinations in the world for health tourism and is poised to overtake its neighboring competitors Singapore and Thailand to become the destination of choice for medical tourism in the region.

Since the mid-2000s, the government of Malaysia has had a clear strategy to brand Malaysian medical tourism as part of its diversification strategy and National Transformation Agenda (NTA) to propel the country into a developed nation by 2020. Realizing the potential of the medical tourism phenomenon, efforts to promote the industry and position Malaysia as the healthcare destination of choice have been on the rise.
The attractiveness of Malaysia is not new; it has a natural landscape of beaches, tropical jungles, and mountains; aspects that have always made it a top destination for wellness travel. However, the development of a medical healthcare framework, namely quality, Western-accredited hospitals, qualified, multi-lingual health specialists, and affordable treatments have enabled the healthcare travel sector to flourish in recent years. In addition, the government of Malaysia has set up a number of agencies, notably the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), in order to disseminate information and promote global awareness of Malaysian healthcare facilities and services.

The primary incentive for traveling to Malaysia for health tourism remains the low cost for private treatment. The cost of a heart bypass operation in Malaysia averages between $10,000 and $15,000, while the equivalent surgery in the US easily reaches $130,000. Even though Singapore was renowned as a top medical tourism destination for many years, today it captures a different segment of the market. This is due not only to the relatively higher cost of treatment and post-treatment care, but also due to the cost of accommodation and food. Since patients traveling for medical treatment will normally bring one or more family members, these are factors that also play a role in the decision-making process.

Malaysia benefits from an attractive location at the heart of ASEAN and good supporting transportation links. Both Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the country's two most popular destinations for medical tourism, are serviced by a number of international airlines. According to Ahmad Shahizam bin Mohd Shariff, CEO of Pantai Operations, Parkway Pantai, “More than 80% of medical travels will take up to a four-hour flight. For Malaysia, there is a huge catchment area, because it covers up to China and larges parts of Asia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and so on.” Furthermore, eligibility for a visa upon arrival applies to most foreigners visiting Malaysia, facilitating easy entry into the country.

With a network of 21 hospitals, Parkway Pantai belongs to healthcare giant IHH, the world's second largest healthcare group by market capitalization and owner of, amongst others, Acibadem Holding in Turkey. Malaysia is able to benefit from the international reputation of its major healthcare players, which also include KPJ Healthcare and Ramsay Sime Darby.

Currently the largest market for Malaysia is Indonesia. According to Ivan Loh, CEO of Gleneagles Penang, “[This is] because of the distance and also because of the healthcare system there. In Malaysia, we have a population of 30 million. In Indonesia, they have 250 million, also its healthcare system is a bit closed whereas ours is more open.”

Another factor is the close cultural affinity in terms of language, food and religion. A growing niche market is that of Islamic medical tourism. Patients from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, and Indonesia are particularly attracted to the Malaysia due to the Muslim-friendly environment that is very suitable for their accompanying family. Female patients can also request treatment by female doctors and the medicine used is certified Halal, as are hospital kitchens.

A well-established medical tourism industry is at the heart of the government's Tourism Transformation Plan (TPP), which has among its goals raising the average receipt per visitor. In the long term, Malaysia's world market share of the global tourism industry is expected to rise and annual revenue growth from medical tourism is forecast to exceed 10%. Rising healthcare costs in developed countries, an ageing population, and longer waiting lists are responsible for the growth of the global healthcare travel market and Malaysia is well-placed to take advantage of this in the years ahead.