Malaysia is among the top-notch destinations for medical tourism in the world and its healthcare and medical services have won global recognition. This first of three articles takes a look at how state-of-the-art oncology services are drawing medical tourists to Malaysian shores.
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – Malaysia used to be her favourite holiday destination and after she was diagnosed with stage 3 nasopharyngeal carcinoma or nasal cancer in 2018, she decided to seek treatment at a private hospital here.
Today, this 55-year-old housewife from Indonesia, who only wanted to be identified as Ibu Ida, is cancer-free but so far this year she had to miss two appointments with her oncologist for follow-up visits as Malaysia’s borders were closed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“I am always in touch with my (travel) agent, as well as listening to the news on television or reading the newspapers hoping that Malaysia has reopened its borders and I can continue with my follow-up treatments,” she told Bernama in a telephone interview.
As Ibu Ida’s cancer is completely cured and she has no other complications, she can choose to do her follow-up check-ups at any hospital in Jakarta where she lives with her two children.
But she is determined to continue seeing her oncologist Dr Lam Kai Seng at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur (PHKL) who treated her for cancer.
Follow-up checks are essential for cancer patients to ensure that they do not suffer any relapse. In the case of Ibu Ida, she was told that there is a 20 to 30 percent probability of the nasal cancer returning, hence her eagerness to resume her follow-up checks with Dr Lam.
“I’m planning to contact Pantai Hospital’s international patient management (section) on the availability of teleconsultation services as now I don’t need to take any medicines,” she added.
Since July 1, Malaysia’s borders have been opened in stages to foreigners seeking medical care in Malaysia but only critically ill patients who need treatment in the intensive care and high dependency units, as well as cancer and heart disease patients, are allowed entry. These patients must have an appointment letter from hospitals that are members of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC).
Even approval to enter Malaysia is subject to compliance with rigid standard operating procedures (SOPs) such as undergoing screening for COVID-19 (via polymerise chain reaction or PCR testing), securing the green light from the Immigration Department and travelling to Malaysia by personal jet or chartered aircraft in order to stem COVID-19 transmissions.
“I am really hoping COVID-19 will end soon so that I can return to Malaysia to see my oncologist. By the way, I’m also missing Malaysia’s delicious nasi lemak, mee udang and banana leaf rice with fish head curry!” she added.
Dr Lam, a clinical oncologist at PHKL, meanwhile said Ibu Ida had undergone radiotherapy using the latest Volumetric Modulated Arc Therapy (VMAT) as part of her treatment for cancer.
He said VMAT had proven to be effective for her although she was already in stage 3 and the cancer had metastasised to the glands on both sides of her neck.
Ibu Ida went through seven chemotherapy sessions and 33 radiotherapy treatments simultaneously over a three-month period.
The interesting part is, the sophisticated VMAT technology helped to mitigate side-effects such as dry mouth and reduced sense of smell and taste that are associated with regular radiotherapy.
Compared with radiation techniques such as 3D Conformal Radiotherapy, VMAT has the capacity to determine the exact location of cancer cells in the body, thus delivering the radiation dose to the tumour itself.
“When Ibu Ida first came for treatment, she was sad, depressed and always in tears due to the cancer and also because her husband had just passed away. Now she is back to her jovial self and has put on some weight as well,” said Dr Lam.
PHKL is currently among the top picks for cancer treatment as it has nearly four decades of experience in this field – in 1981, it became the first private hospital in Malaysia to provide cancer therapy.
PHKL emergency department senior medical officer Dr Mohd Ridzuan Abdul Razak said PHKL’s Cancer Centre was relaunched in 2018 as a one-stop centre fitted with state-of-the-art equipment to provide a more extensive range of radiotherapy and oncology services and integrated care to cancer patients.
It is understood that its day-care chemotherapy section can treat up to 35 patients a day in a conducive environment and with a shorter waiting period.
Dr Mohd Ridzuan said PHKL’s specialities are oncology, cardiology, neurosurgery and orthopaedics, among others.
“Medical tourists referred to our hospital are mostly cancer patients and a majority of them are from Indonesia,” he added.
PHKL International Patient Services Centre (IPC) senior executive Hemakumari Sugayindran said several of its patients from Indonesia who are currently undergoing chemotherapy at the hospital do not want to return to their country until their treatments have ended.
She said they are worried that if they return home now, they may not be allowed to come back to Malaysia to resume their treatments due to the border closure.
According to Hemakumari, most of these cancer patients started their chemotherapy treatments just before the Movement Control Order was enforced.
“If they had chosen to return to Indonesia, there is a huge possibility that they might not have been able to return for their subsequent treatments,” she said.
The IPC has been helping the foreign patients “stranded” in their hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic to extend their visas by submitting the relevant supporting documents such as letters from the doctor and MHTC to the Malaysian Immigration authorities.
Interestingly, Malaysia’s outstanding cancer treatment facilities sought after by international patients are not only available at private hospitals but also at public-sector hospitals.
Taking a look at the nation’s history of medical services, cancer treatments were offered as early as 1981. Over the years, however, with advancements in medical science, hospitals started offering more comprehensive treatment options that utilised cutting-edge technology to improve the chances of recovery.
Hospital Kuala Lumpur was the first government facility to offer oncology and radiotherapy services. Currently, these services are available at more than five government hospitals, complete with adequate facilities and specialists.
Among the government hospitals offering cancer treatments are Hospital Sultan Ismail in Johor Bahru, Hospital Umum Sarawak in Kuching and Hospital Penang. Teaching hospitals equipped with cancer facilities include Hospital Canselor Tuanku Muhriz (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), Universiti Malaya Medical Centre and Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Advanced Medical and Dental Institute.
To show its commitment to improving treatment for cancer, which is the fourth-highest cause of death in Malaysia, the government opened the National Cancer Institute in Putrajaya in September 2013. It is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and has specialised diagnostics and treatments to deal with various types of cancer.
Private hospitals too have made great strides in cancer treatment. Currently, more than 29 medical centres offer oncology services, compared to 14 hospitals about 15 years ago.
National Cancer Society Malaysia general manager and medical director Dr Murallitharan M said from the perspective of health tourism, “we must assess Malaysia’s, in particular the private sector’s, achievements in cancer treatments as most medical tourists seek treatment at private hospitals”.
He said the level of use of sophisticated medical technology and expertise in oncology in the private and public sectors in Malaysia is on a par with other hospitals in Asia.
“In fact, the standard of treatment (offered by cancer centres) is world-class, highly reputable and reasonably priced… these are among the factors driving Malaysia to be the focal point for oncology services,” he added.