In 2016, Malaysia recorded over RM1billion in revenue from medical tourism. Pix by SURIANIE MOHD HANIF.

HEALTH is no longer just another sector bleeding the country’s treasury. Today, it has a growing successful commercial arm in the shape of private hospitals that provide healthcare services for medical tourists — patients from abroad who pay the economic cost for the treatment they seek. And, given its elaborate nature requiring support structures like accommodation and transport for outpatient care, as well as accompanying caregivers, the sector will be a lucrative source of government revenue. The better the service, the faster will be its growth.

Last year alone, thanks to one million healthcare travellers, the industry recorded a revenue exceeding RM1 billion. In terms of numbers, the volume has grown from 643,000 in 2011 to 859,000 in 2015, a growth of some two hundred thousand, indicating the increasing confidence in the country’s hospitals among healthcare travellers.

The ministry responsible, the Health Ministry, while ensuring quality, is also promoting the industry through the creation of the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) with offices in market countries to publicise and provide supporting information and extend help to facilitate potential travellers. The outcome has been good.

In 2015, the industry contributed between RM3 billion and RM4 billion to the Malaysian economy. The target set is, at least, RM5 billion — and growing — to the nation’s annual gross domestic product (GDP), which stands at slightly below US$300 billion (RM1.32 trillion) for 2015, Malaysia’s average over the years. To have an additional burgeoning sector is what the country needs to push past this GDP average.

Malaysia has the advantage of a high international ranking for healthcare provision even before the growth of medical tourism. However, given the regional competition, it is important that a comparative advantage be identified. In Thailand, for example, the Spine Institute at Bumrungrad International boasts a 95 per cent success rate for spinal endoscopic surgeries performed on more than 600 patients.

Malaysian hospitals must then find a niche. For instance, the most successful private hospital serving medical tourists, the Sunway Medical Centre — winner of the International Hospital of the year 2016 award — sees its success as “the one-stop centre for not just medical services, but also the entire supply chain”. That this is a successful strategy that cannot be disputed. But what if Institut Jantung Negara (IJN), say, is built into the region’s — if not the world’s — leading cardiac care facility, around which reputation a cluster of private hospitals can benefit from? Would this not create the necessary critical mass to propel Malaysia’s medical tourism further?

Nevertheless, a word of caution. In the euphoria of growing another profitable economic sector, the Health Ministry cannot abandon its reason for providing excellent, affordable and efficient healthcare for Malaysians. The government must never forget to fulfil this obligation because “health is wealth”. And what better way than to allocate the revenue from private healthcare and medical tourism to support the same standard of service to public healthcare, but at affordable cost. For, if profits be the only rationale, then healthcare in Malaysia would have lost its humanitarian calling.

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