GEORGETOWN, Penang: At first sight, Mr Craig Fletcher could be mistaken for any tourist.
However, sightseeing is not the main item on his agenda. The Australian was travelling with his two young children to accompany his wife for an aesthetic procedure in Penang.
“Aesthetic procedures can be costly in our home country so we opted to come to Penang as the cost is 30 to 40 per cent lower than back in Perth. Besides, this procedure is not covered by our insurance,” he told CNA.
He and his family had visited Penang for a holiday several years ago and enjoyed the experience.
Mr Fletcher noted that Penang is not too far from Perth and has similar weather. Coupled with nice beaches, friendly people, great food, good hotels, and affordable medical facilities, Penang was an easy choice, he added.
The medical tourism scene in Malaysia is booming. In 2018, approximately 1.2 million people visited the country to seek medical treatment – and this number is growing.
Within Malaysia, Penang is the top medical tourism destination. The northern state generates 40 to 50 per cent of the country’s medical tourism income and this has numerous multiplier effects on the local economy.
In 2017 alone, Penang’s healthcare industry generated some RM500 million (US$165 million) in revenue, according to data from the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC).
The success factors for Penang’s medical tourism industry include relatively affordable private hospitals, their niche marketing strategy, as well as supporting infrastructure like hotels and malls.
For now, it appears that this boom is set to continue, with hospitals expanding aggressively and the state government determined to encourage more health visitors.
But experts cautioned that medical tourism might be a bane to the public health system, if measures are not taken to more tightly regulate the industry.
While other regional players including Singapore and Thailand had a 20-year head start, Malaysia has done well in playing catch up in the field of medical tourism, MHTC said.
Its CEO Sherene Ali noted that rising healthcare costs in neighbouring countries have helped to strengthen Malaysia’s position as a healthcare destination, as it offers more affordable prices.
Penang, in particular, has the entire ecosystem in place for medical tourism, she added.
“Excellent hospitals, world-class quality care, an end-to-end patient service, not to mention good hotels and other facilities that appeal to medical tourists and their families.”
“The Penang government is focusing on development and improvement of tourism in the state (healthcare tourism included) as it contributes a high percentage of their gross domestic product (GDP),” she said.
Of the total, Indonesians make up the biggest group of inbound tourists seeking medical treatment at various medical facilities in Penang.
Contributing to this is Penang’s similarity with Indonesia in terms of weather, food, culture and language. It also has direct flight connections from several Indonesian cities.
Mr Yeoh Soon Hin, the state executive councillor for tourism development, arts, culture and heritage told CNA: “Penang has the advantage of cultural and language similarity to Indonesia, compared to Thailand, and cost advantage when it comes to Singapore”.
Mr Heikal Rosnan, an analyst at public policy consulting firm Bower Group Asia, noted that while the 11th Malaysia Plan has identified Penang, Johor and Melaka as healthcare hubs, the two southern states are still some way away from overtaking Penang’s position.
“This is largely due to the presence of a robust electronics and tourism industry in Penang, giving it a clear advantage,” he said.
Hospitals in Penang have a distinct strategy to attract medical tourists.
For instance, Island Hospital – a 300-bed private medical facility in Georgetown – brands itself as “medical tourist-friendly”.
According to MHTC, Island Hospital received 21 per cent of Indonesian medical tourists in Malaysia last year, the highest in the country.
Popular treatments sought by these medical tourists at Island Hospital are orthopaedic, gastroenterology, general health screening and cardiology.
Its director of marketing and patient services Dennicce Chia said the hospital prioritises patient convenience by offering same-day results for health screening and other clinical investigations.
“We also offer health screening services on Sundays,” she said.
The hospital works with long-time partners to help manage the inflow of patients, such as medical agents who assist in making appointments and travel arrangements, she added.
Mr Purwanto, an Indonesian patient from Medan seeking cardiology treatment at Island Hospital, said he heard of Penang from his sister, who had sought treatment at another hospital in the state.
“Compared to Indonesia, the waiting time here is shorter. It is also more affordable, and I receive better quality of care,” he added.
Most medical travellers rarely travel overseas on their own. They arrive with their family members or loved ones in tow, and that is when complementary services such as hotels and retailers come into play.
Shopping malls and hotels near hospitals are eager to tailor their offerings to suit the needs of these healthcare travellers.
G Hotel Gurney and G Hotel Kelawai, for instance, pride themselves as being “post-treatment friendly”.
Having partnered private hospitals in Penang to offer special stay packages, both properties had seen a surge in their occupancy by medical tourists, particularly those from Indonesia.
The hotels’ communications director Ms Christina Tan told CNA that both hotels are convenient choices as they are located within the vicinity of the hospitals, shopping malls and a host of eateries.
Meanwhile, Olive Tree Hotel, a business hotel in the southwest of Penang island, is disabled-friendly.
“We have accommodation and public toilets that cater to the physically challenged guests. We are the only hotel in Penang that has allocated two rooms for the disabled,” said the hotel’s marketing communications manager Ms Lim Hui Hui.
Meanwhile, Straits Quay is one of the malls that has seen an increase in visitors, particularly those coming for medical treatment from Indonesia, China and Thailand.
Ms Emily Teh, group projects & property investments director of Eastern & Oriental Berhad, the developer of Straits Quay retail marina, said medical tourists usually spend on food and beverages, spa, reflexology and lifestyle products.
“The retail marina is consistently optimising healthcare infrastructure within the mall by bringing in tenants to address the needs of those looking for speech therapy, fertility treatment, chiropractic care or relief for other related healthcare conditions,” she added.
The medical tourism industry in Penang is not without its challenges.
In a paper for the Turkish Journal for Public Health, Dr Chow Sze Loon trained the spotlight on the risk of importing infectious disease and the impact of medical tourism on public healthcare for local patients.
The district epidemiology officer of Penang’s Southwest District Health Office noted that Indonesia has the second highest tuberculosis cases in the world, after India.
Hence, he cautioned that it is common for Indonesian patients seeking a second opinion in Penang to not disclose their initial diagnosis as an infectious disease, and thus posing a potential health risk to the individuals handling them in Penang.
He also warned of the possibility of the foreign patients spreading infections to the local community when they stay at residential properties during their visits.
Referral of healthcare travellers to public hospitals, due to limited resources in the private hospitals, has also caused a greater strain on the already overworked government medical staff, Dr Chow noted.
“Provision of healthcare services as a commodity to foreign patients might worsen an internal brain drain driving healthcare experts from the public service to the private sector, thereby reducing access to care for the local patients,” he wrote.
For now, hospitals appear to be bullish about their prospects.
Mr Yeoh, the state executive councillor, pointed out that every single hospital in the state has grown or is in the process of expanding, and this is a testament to the strong value proposition offered by Penang’s medical tourism sector.
Island Hospital, in particular, is embarking on an expansion project that will double the capacity of its existing facility, said Ms Chia.
In the future, it will be an integrated medical hub with a medical tourism hotel and a medical mall.
While Penang has done well in attracting medical tourists, there are some “structural issues” that need to be addressed going forward, said Mr Yeoh.
“(Examples of these issues include) visa entry and extension requirements for patients and their caregivers, flight connectivity and access that could improve Penang’s attractiveness as a medical tourism destination,” he said.
Among the things that the state government is looking into include the establishment of more direct flights, which is key to opening up new markets.
“Penang will strive to penetrate new markets, to diversify its dependence on the Indonesian market. In the immediate term, China represents a huge catchment, while Singapore has strong potential too,” Mr Yeoh said.