Malaysia is well known as a popular tourist destination for its natural, cultural and historical destinations, but did you know Malaysia is also recognised as a fledgling hub for medical tourism? If the term “medical tourism” makes you think of international tourists taking a guided tour of our local and private hospitals, you might want to know that that is not the case at all. In fact, medical tourism actually refers to travellers from abroad who come to Malaysia to receive medical treatment.
The government has taken numerous steps to make Malaysia a reputable choice for medical travellers, chief among these being the inception of the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) in 2005. The MHTC is an agency under the Ministry of Health (MoH) tasked to “facilitate and promote the healthcare travel industry of Malaysia by coordinating industry collaborations and building valuable public-private partnerships, at home and abroad.” Through their efforts and initiatives, Malaysia seeks to establish itself as a leading medical destination for medical travellers from all over the world. The country’s efforts were even recognised numerous times, including its win of the “Health and Medical Tourism: Destination of the Year” title at the 2020 International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) Medical Travel Awards.
In its bid to achieve this goal, the MHTC recently unveiled the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Blueprint 2021-2025, with its aspiration to achieve RM1.7 billion in healthcare travel revenue by 2025. Its key strategies will focus on strengthening Malaysia’s reputation as a quality healthcare destination, by improving the quality of medical care given; moving towards digitisation of medical processes; and continuing the provision of affordable healthcare.
With the country now entering the endemic phase, Malaysia’s medical tourism is set to see a much-needed revival. With 1.22 million medical travellers in 2019 alone, and having some of the lowest healthcare costs in the world, Malaysia looks set to welcome a much higher number from 2022 onwards.
Pioneering Medical Advances
Part of the reason why Malaysia is such a popular medical tourism destination is that it constantly keeps up with the newest breakthroughs in medical technology. One such example is the National Heart Institute’s (IJN) successful implantation of the Micra AV pacemaker, used to treat irregular heartbeats, in 2020. IJN would be the first hospital outside of the United States to perform this surgical procedure. The small size of the pacemaker makes it easy to implant it without requiring significant open surgery, requiring only a minimally invasive procedure in a much shorter time, and with far fewer complications in the long term.
Malaysia is also one of a few countries that is taking concrete steps to consolidate both modern and traditional medical practices as part of the healthcare industry. The Traditional and Complementary Medicine (T&CM) Act 2016 is one such move to better incorporate traditional and complementary medicine in the country by establishing legislation, policies and guidelines on T&CM. This helps T&CM to provide high standards of quality care, ensures practitioners are properly registered and trained and helps contribute its growing influence to medical tourists seeking safe, alternative methods to treat their illnesses.
Historically, Malaysia has always been recognised as a strategic location for many things, most notably maritime shipping. Malaysia’s tourism has grown significantly since the first Visit Malaysia Year campaign in the 1990s, and part of that success stems from its location on the planet.
Of particular note is Malaysia’s location close to the Equatorial line, giving its characteristic warm climate with occasional rainfall, further characterised by seasonal monsoon periods throughout the year. As such, Malaysia’s climate has led to vast rainforests full of diverse flora and fauna species, beautiful beaches along its coasts, and a variety of islands with equally beautiful sights and sounds. The natural diversity and sunny weather all year long (with the occasional bout of rain) is what attracts many tourists, especially those from colder climates, or whose four seasons include cold winters.
Malaysia can also be viewed as a gateway to Asia itself, with its location bordering many Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, while also still accessible to travellers from other Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and China.
The biggest draw besides Malaysia’s growing medical expertise is the relative cost compared to that other countries’ medical costs. Specifically, Western medical tourists choose Malaysia as their destination of choice because it would save them thousands in their own currency to have medical procedures done in Malaysia than in their home country. At the time of writing, one US Dollar is equal to RM4.35.
This is a huge draw for international tourists, as it means they can afford top of the line medical treatments without having to break the bank. Some procedures – such as cosmetic surgery – maybe half the amount of what someone might have to pay in a Western country. For example, a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery may cost as much as USD77,000 in the United States. In Malaysia, the cost for the same surgical treatment method is approximately USD16,000 after conversion.
Not only do they save a significant sum for equally excellent treatment procedures at a fraction of the cost, but they will also still have enough funds on the side to enjoy a vacation in the country. There are even collaborations between hotels and hospitals, where the hotels offer customised stay packages that are touted as “post-treatment friendly” while providing accessibility, excellent service, and other benefits that can be enjoyed at the hotel or the hospital.
Internationally Recognised Hospitals
As part of efforts to deliver the best healthcare to citizens and medical tourists, a number of hospitals and other healthcare providers in Malaysia have pursued and attained accreditation from international healthcare bodies. These include accreditation from the Joint Commission International, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that advocates rigorous standards of healthcare and improves healthcare performance and outcomes; and the Reproductive Technology Accreditation Committee’s (RTAC) International Code of Practice for the delivery of safe fertility treatments.
Earning these accreditations requires rigorous implementation of quality care delivery every step of the way, and ensuring that these high standards are maintained at all times. They are not simply a means to boost a hospital’s popularity or prestige, but instead demonstrate the importance of prioritising excellent healthcare outcomes without sacrificing healthcare quality. They also promote strong accountability on part of the accredited hospitals, as they constantly strive to meet the highest healthcare standards of treatment at all times.
The combination of international accreditation, bolstered by the medical industry’s high-quality services provided, has enabled a number of our hospitals to achieve international recognition, winning prestigious awards that serve to boost our country’s desire to become a renowned medical hub. Among the accolades won include “2019 Medical Tourism Hospital of the Year in the Asia Pacific” for Sunway Medical Centre; “2019 Hospital of the Year Malaysia” for both Prince Court Medical Centre and Subang Jaya Medical Centre; and “2019 Cardiology Service Provider of the Year” going to IJN.
A Leader in Medical Research
With a long history of medical research that has flourished since the 1900s, Malaysia continues to play its part and has conducted a total of 215 new clinical types of research that were initiated in 2021. This has put Malaysia on par with other regional partners like Singapore and is viewed as a positive sign of putting Malaysia on track as a leading global medical hub.
Clinical trials in the country are overseen and supported by various organisations such as the MoH, the National Committee for Clinical Research (NCCR), and Clinical Research Malaysia. The NCCR’s role is to “establish policies and plan clinical trial activities for the short, medium and long-term in Malaysia” by finding ways to strengthen medical infrastructure and promote good clinical and laboratory practices.
Clinical Research Malaysia, established by the MoH in 2012, supports clinical research through training related to clinical research, communicating with the public and industry players on clinical research programs, and helping to consult, manage, and review aspects of clinical research to ensure all regulations and best practices are met from start to finish. Through the combined efforts of these organisations, clinical research participation has increased significantly through the years, further bolstering Malaysia’s position as a growing medical hub for conventional treatments and the research of new methods that can help deliver better quality healthcare for everyone.
Malaysia takes clinical research very seriously and has various systems in place to ensure all medical research that takes place meets the highest standards. One such system is the National Medical Research Register, a web-based system that “streamlines the application, review and approval process to conduct research in the MOH.” This helps the government and relevant organisations to keep track of ongoing medical research in Malaysia, and to review their methodology and ethical concerns before their approval.
Much as Malaysia is well known for its beautiful natural sights and rich cultural history, Malaysians are well praised for the polite and highly personalised service they provide to visitors from all over the world. This has translated very well in the healthcare industry, with nurses and doctors providing outstanding service with every step of the way. They treat their charges with professional, but genuine, interest, easily winning over medical travellers with their kindness and careful assistance. It is an oft-cited quality among medical travellers which encourages them to return in the future.
Part of this excellence comes from a desire to provide personalised care for each person undergoing treatment or recovering from it. This translates not only to the diagnosis and treatment they can or will receive, but to the service they receive while warded, or when waiting for the test results. Nurses and doctors pay close attention to the needs of those under their care, offering help where needed, making special arrangements that benefit their care recipients, and going the distance whenever they can.
Excellent Healthcare Quality
Malaysian healthcare also prioritises patient convenience, offering same-day results for health screenings and other checks, while top tier facilities and amenities are provided while waiting for the results. This grants medical travellers sufficient comfort while they wait, and gives them various activities to do in between. They can even venture out to explore nearby attractions before returning in time to find out what is next for their healthcare plan.
Keeping up with medical breakthroughs allows for newer surgical treatments that are less invasive and have a faster recovery time than open surgeries. The Micra AV pacemaker is just one of many such procedures, handled with precision and timely post-surgery care. In fact, Subang Jaya Medical Centre performed the country’s first daycare total knee replacement in late 2021, a success that comes from over two decades of improvements and adaptations to greatly enhance healthcare outcomes and reduce the risk of complications. Malaysia takes great pains to drive the medical industry forwards, and its track record continues to prove the country’s ability to deliver.
Accessibility is another key to Malaysia’s great track record. Various channels exist to help ease the flow of medical tourists and prevent long waiting times for treatments. Thanks to these effective channels, it can be effortless for someone to engage and almost immediately make an appointment with a doctor in Malaysia, instead of being relegated to a very long waiting list elsewhere in the world. One interesting caveat is that Malaysia has seen an influx of medical tourists from Thailand and Singapore, as both these countries are having difficulty in managing the influx of medical tourists.
Highly Trained Medical Professionals
Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals working in Malaysia are all highly-trained individuals, many of which have credentials from foreign universities and institutions. Whether they operate from a small-town clinic, or work in one of the many prestigious hospitals around the country, Malaysia’s medical professionals have the necessary credentials to help medical tourists with their healthcare-related concerns without compromising on confidentiality, comfort, convenience and confidence. Moreover, medical specialists covering a wide variety of fields can be found in a majority of healthcare institutions around the country.
As part of efforts to strengthen the medical industry and safeguard patients as well as doctors, entities such as the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) and the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) exist to make sure that the healthcare given to care recipients is of the highest quality without any compromise, and that all healthcare professionals are to be registered with the government, must maintain ethical standards set by the government (and as per the Hippocratic Oath), and consistently improve their practice through continuous learning and research.
Halal-Certified Medications and Treatments
Halal pharmaceuticals and medical treatments are becoming more and more prevalent in recent years, especially in Muslim majority countries like Malaysia. This has helped to draw in Muslim medical tourists from places such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. There have also been formal agreements with Kazakhstan, Libya and Oman to send their medical tourists to Malaysia, as part of efforts to bolster our country’s medical tourism sector.
The offering of new halal-certified, or Shariah-compliant, medications and treatments is a rapidly expanding field in Malaysia, with the need to cater to Muslims looking for such products and services. In a bid to meet these growing needs, the “MS2424: 2012 Halal Pharmaceuticals – General Guidelines” was developed and implemented in 2012, becoming the world’s first Halal pharmaceutical standard. The standard was devised as a way to effectively address the complexities of the pharmaceutical industry while ensuring the safety, quality and efficacy of certified medications and treatments. This is in tandem with the recent introduction of the MS2636 standard for halal medical devices, further widening the net for Muslim-friendly medical tourism in Malaysia.
Malaysia has also created halal-certified medical products of its own, including the GranuMas synthetic bone graft. GranuMas is also internationally recognised, earning accreditation by the British Standard Institution and enabling its sales in the European market. The MoH has also implemented guidelines for the use of non-halal medications or treatments for Muslims, making sure that Muslim medical travellers are aware of the medications and procedures that are used in the event that they may not be halal-certified.
A Wonderful Tourist Destination
Medical tourists may come to Malaysia for its top-notch and affordable healthcare, but they will also find themselves staying a while longer for its rich diversity as a tourist destination. Whether it is sandy beaches, beautiful hill views, majestic cave formations, or even a stroll through the historical parts of a city, Malaysia has a lot to offer travellers and a wide variety of tastes. Medical tourism packages offer stays at the finest hotels that are well within the range of a premier hospital and nearby sightseeing attractions, leaving medical travellers spoiled for choice. Coupled with the relatively low cost of goods for most foreign tourists, there is a lot that they can do to pass the time – shopping, street food hunting, beach picnics, nature treks, and more!
Medical Tourism in Malaysia
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