Innovation as a driver of Malaysia’s medical tourism success

In 2019, the country welcomed twice as many medical tourists as the US.

In today’s hyper-connected world, patients can easily travel in search of high-quality healthcare services that they may not have access to in their home countries. One Southeast Asian country in particular has risen to the forefront, making its mark as the first choice for international medical tourists.

The International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) recently ranked Malaysia as the top medical tourism destination in 2019, when it attracted 1.3 million medical tourists. By contrast, the US welcomed 550,000, reports The Star.

What role does digital and innovation play in the country’s success in medical tourism? There are opportunities to transform healthcare services and provide seamless patient experiences – but gaps remain.

Hub for international patients

What are the factors that make Malaysia an ideal medical tourism destination? First and foremost, the country largely offers competitive costs for procedures, reports Singapore Business Review. A heart bypass, for instance, costs US$23,000 in neighbouring Singapore but US$14,000 in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the predominantly Muslim country is hoping to attract patients from the Middle East. The country’s hospitals provide ‘halal’ healthcare products, such as insulin which does not contain pork derivatives, and facilities such as prayer rooms, reports Marketing Interactive.

This, coupled with high-quality healthcare services, English-speaking healthcare professionals, and strong government support, makes the country a compelling choice for incoming patients from the region and beyond. “We target to promote treatments that have a high return. Our goal is to make Malaysia the leading global healthcare destination,” Sherene Azli, CEO of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), told reporters last year.

There are plans to keep building on this success. Malaysia’s medical tourism landscape has seen aggressive growth of between 16-17% year-on-year over the last five years, while the global industry’s average growth lies between 10-12%. In 2020, MHTC hopes to achieve RM2.8 billion (US$673 million) in medical tourism revenue, according to IMTJ.

Tech focus

The question now is how Malaysia can retain its status as a favourite among medical tourists across the world. Constant innovation could be the key, as patients across the world look to the country for high-end, high-tech healthcare services, says Dr Kuljit Singh, Medical Director of Prince Court Medical Centre in Kuala Lumpur.

Artificial intelligence, for instance, is creating new possibilities to boost cancer diagnosis. “We in Malaysia are looking at using artificial intelligence in our healthcare so that we can be more efficient, accurate and precise,” Dr Singh tells Hospital Insights Asia on the sidelines of Hospital Management Asia last year.

Artificial intelligence represents a huge opportunity for the country to transform healthcare in various ways, not just in disease diagnosis, he explains. “We are looking at the bigger picture. Locally there could be a lot of research that we can come up with – our locally incorporated artificial intelligence for a local population,” says Dr Singh, who is also the President of the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia.

At the same time, the country needs more work in building a national electronic medical record system, so that its hospitals may reap the benefits of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies. “Electronic medical records in Malaysia are not complete, in the sense that not every hospital uses electronic medical records,” Dr Singh remarks.

For a start, individual hospitals should prioritise electronic medical records, and transition away from paper-based reporting, he believes. Government support and incentives would be essential to getting this off the ground, Dr Singh goes on to say – currently, cost is the main stumbling block for hospitals that are keen to implement such a system.

In 2019, the government announced plans to implement electronic medical record systems across all government hospitals and clinics over a period of up to five years, which could cost up to RM1.5 billion. The previous health minister recently said that these systems would be ready by mid-2020.

Malaysia is poised to continue to attract medical tourists in an increasingly saturated market. Tech can help to plug gaps and overcome barriers in its pursuit to be the medical tourism destination of choice.

Photo by Patrick Langwallner on Unsplash