Public health is one area that has remained in the back seat for some time since its heyday of the 1960s and 1970s when infectious diseases were a concern.
The subject has changed much, especially after massive urbanisation, cross-border movement of workers, and rapid industrialisation.
As for now, investments in hospitals and clinics have come to the fore with the changing pattern of ailments. In a way, this explains the large investments in the health sector.
However, this creates a new opportunity by giving the health sector a new source of export earnings in the form of health tourism.
An increasing trend now is cross-border consumption of health services, taking the form of health tourism. Malaysia has its share of this trade, given the increasing number of private specialist hospitals in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Baru and Malacca.
We have received health tourists mainly from Indonesia and Singapore, given our lower costs and modern medical facilities.
In the region, Singapore and Thailand have acquired a prominent role in this service trade.
Thailand has received many patients from the Middle East. In other words, Thailand has taken advantage of its strong tourism and related services industry, such as transportation and hotels, to advance into health tourism.
As early as 2007, Thailand had received over one million foreign patients compared with about 700,000 for Malaysia in 2010.
London has received health tourists from many parts of the world, including the Middle East, given its strong attraction as a premier tourist centre and its modern medical and health facilities.
From a public health perspective, a hygienic food industry is important. This is one avenue Malaysia can take advantage of in the years to come with our prominent position in halal food and services.
Health tourism rightly falls in place because it involves various services, including halal food, which Malaysia can easily provide.
Food is one component in health tourism.
Other components include immigration, transportation and ambulatory services, accommodation, hospital services, marketing, and availability of specialists, doctors, nurses and support staff.
Not only that, these facilities must be available readily, and their quality, organisation and coordination must be superb.
This is most critical for health tourism to grow and expand.
The whole chain of services has to be connected and work in unison. This is where Malaysia may want to improve to move forward in this industry.
Patients come with their relatives, who may want other amenities.
Supporting all these is the availability of clean and hygienically-prepared food for patients and their relatives.
Our food handling industry has to meet international standards of preparation and handling to ensure there are no incidences of food poisoning in all places where food is supplied.
Our hospitals take extreme care in this matter.
Elsewhere, however, especially in food stalls and retail-handling level, there may be complacency in enforcing high standards.
Over the years, cases of food poisoning in hostels and wedding functions have been reported.
News of these cases may not be heartening as they give the impression that the industry is not well regulated and the average Malaysian does not give much concern about the matter.
It is not that we do not have the regulations but adhering to them at the individual level may be lukewarm.
To improve health tourism, we have a national council to spearhead its development and its role in the industry is essential and important.
The fact that Muslims from the Middle East patronise Thai hospitals illustrate that the Thais have taken every aspect of the industry into consideration, making their hospitals a welcome place for treatment and recuperation as well as convalescence.
Secondly, the role of local governments in making cities and towns clean and healthy cannot be underestimated, too, because local governments maintain a good image of the community with their roles in maintaining public amenities, drains, parks, and building standards as well as local public health concerns, such as licensing of food stalls and outlets.
In fact, the role of public health is primarily the job of the local governments as per the Local Governments Act.
We should focus on our health tourism industry as a source of earnings.
Let us support the efforts.
Dr. Norlaili Abdul Aziz, a public health specialist, has worked in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya as a public health doctor and has taught public health in local universities
Source : New Straits Times