Destination, Malaysia

Malaysia’s medical tourism has been growing from strength to strength, and Priya Kulasagaran speaks to the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council to learn more about its role in making this happen.

The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) has been on a roll this year. In April, the organisation bagged the Medical Tourism Cluster of the Year award at the International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) Awards 2017. The awards ceremony, held in Croatia, also saw Malaysia earning the Health and Medical Tourism Destination of the Year award for the third year in a row.

Barely a month later, MHTC was deemed the Medical Travel Organisation of the Year at this year’s Asia Pacific Healthcare and Medical Tourism Awards in Bali, Indonesia. For this award, the judges looked for organisations that have maintained consistently high standards in delivering quality care and pushed the boundaries of providing for their customers at every stage and in every interaction.

These awards are just the most recent of the string of accolades MHTC has been quietly garnering within the international healthcare travel sector in recent years. Other notable wins included Malaysia being named the best country for healthcare in International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index 2015 – 2017, as well as “Public-Private Partnership Medical Travel Destination of the Year” at the 2015 World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress.

“In terms of gaining all this recognition, we have the three core factors of a world-class healthcare system — quality, accessibility and affordability,” says MHTC chief executive officer Sherene Azli. “And Malaysia as whole has a lot to offer; when we talk about Malaysia as a healthcare destination, it’s about encompassing the whole end-to-end service delivery. So that means not just healthcare, but the overall infrastructure and connectivity.”

The Malaysian experience

MHTC was set up under the Health Ministry in 2009 solely for the purpose of promoting the country’s healthcare to international patients. Sherene explains that the medical tourism industry is important not just as a contributor to the national economy as a whole, but also to drive growth of the healthcare sector. “The public healthcare system has always been primarily for Malaysians, so we only promote the private sector. When the private sector is able to strengthen itself further, and reinvest its earnings back into healthcare, it can help take some of the burden off the public system — and that’s what we want. We want both sectors to grow,” she says.

She adds that this focus on helping both sectors grow simultaneously has gained international recognition as well. “We only spend about 4.6% of our GDP on healthcare; this is quite small compared to a lot of other countries. For example, if you look at the United States, they spend about 18% (of GDP) on health, but we’re seen as being more efficient in our healthcare delivery,” she says.

Sherene points out that the ease at which we are able to meet with a doctor also places the country high on the accessibility scale. “You just have to pick up the phone and make an appointment. Whereas in a lot of countries, even developed ones, you have to go and see a general practitioner first, who would give you referral, and then you wait two to three weeks to see the doctor. Then after that, you may have to wait another six to eight weeks for treatment.”

According to Sherene, the people who frequent Malaysia for medical purposes are mainly from countries around the region, namely Indonesia, China, India, Vietnam and Myanmar. “We also get a fair number of patients from developed countries such the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and even Japan. These patients usually come in for more elective procedures, such as cosmetic surgery, dental work, and in-virto fertilisation (IVF) treatments,” she adds.

Caring over selling

As Sherene puts it, promoting healthcare is not as straightforward as marketing any other product since you are dealing with services that affect people’s lives and well-being. “We definitely do not believe in the ‘hard sell’ approach or commercialising healthcare,” she says. “Everyone should have access to healthcare and have choices, so if you start to commercialise healthcare, you run the risk of overpricing, negative branding, and affecting patient safety. The patient’s interest and well-being is our priority.”

This explains why, rather than in-your-face advertisements, MHTC opts for more subtle campaigns which highlight Malaysian hospitality and care. This can be seen in the “Share My Love” campaign, a continuation of last year’s “Malaysia Loves You” campaign, which espouses a message of love, unity and kindness. The concept aims to highlight the essence of Malaysia’s healthcare, which provides great care, compassion and warmth.

“We do follow through the campaign with tacticals, such as the packages available, concrete data showing how and why our hospitals are good, all the facts that potential patients need. But we want to appeal to the hearts of people rather than just trying to tell them a product. Healthcare is a very personal thing,” adds Sherene.

Another approach MHTC takes is to promote specialities that Malaysia is particularly strong in, rather than blindly going head-on against regional competitors such as India or Thailand. “We focus on our main treatments such as oncology, cardiology, neurology, cosmetic surgery and IVF,” explains Sherene. “We have particularly strong centres of excellence in these fields. For example, our IVF success rate is currently the highest in the world, exceeding a 66% success rate in comparison to the global average of 50%.”

Having hit a growth of 32% in medical tourism last year, Sherene says that there is some pressure to maintain and build on that high benchmark. “Right now, we’re looking at what the gaps in the value chain of the end-to-end experience of the patient are, and working on those gaps,” she says. “So this means from the start of it, when they’re searching Google for healthcare destinations in Asia and making sure our digital marketing is good enough for Malaysia to be at the top of the results. Then it’s continuing to work with our hospitals and facilitating the processes and making sure patients are taken care of right up to the moment they leave. We’re also talking to the other players, such as airlines and travel agents, so that we can deliver the best experience for patients.”

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