Tuesday 17 December 2019
Photo: iStock

An artisanal coffee shop. An Instagram-ready restaurant serving fusion food. Concierge service. Airport transfers. Help with visa applications and sightseeing tours. Soon-to-open VIP suites.

Just one thing: this isn’t a luxury hotel. It’s a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The services and facilities at Hospital Cardiac Vascular Sentral Kuala Lumpur (CVSKL) are there to attract clientele that hospitals in the region are hungry to attract – medical tourists.

Established in 2017, CVSKL is a private hospital dedicated to cardiac and vascular diseases. It may be the latest newcomer to the country’s health tourism scene but patients from surrounding countries – mostly Indonesia – already make up more than one-tenth of its business.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has emerged as a popular destination. The successes of countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are key contributors to the region’s boom in this sector. Hospitals here offer treatments, which are cheaper, faster, more advanced – or in some cases, all of the above – than what patients could get back home.

medical tourism and plastic surgery
Medical tourism in Southeast Asia is enjoying a massive growth. Photo: iStock

Using US costs across a variety of specialties and procedures as a benchmark, consulting firm Patients Beyond Borders estimates the average range of savings in Singapore is around 25%-40%, Thailand 50%-75% and Malaysia 65%-80%.

The growth of medical tourism across Southeast Asia

One of the most important aspects of branding is hospital accreditation. Recognitions like the Joint Commission International’s are sought-after as agencies use them to persuade potential patients to take their treatments abroad.

In this aspect, Malaysia lags behind its regional competitors. Thailand has 46 hospitals with JCI-accredited hospital programmes, followed by Indonesia (19), Singapore (10) and Malaysia (10).

But sometimes all it takes is good, old-fashioned word of mouth.

Three years ago, John Wee’s father-in-law Thio Seng was suffering from chronic back pain. The 67-year-old batik manufacturer and wholesaler’s mobility was badly affected.

Then Thio’s friend told him of a “miracle doctor” in a private hospital in Penang. The doctor had cured his friend of the shooting pains in his leg due to spinal issues.

Thio from Pekalongan, Indonesia, flew to Penang to be treated by the same doctor. It was a success.

The cost: 265,000,000 rupiah or RM77,000. Wee estimated the cost would have been more than RM100,000 in Jakarta or even more in Singapore.

After a couple of days resting in the hospital, they moved to a hotel. They even did some sightseeing and checked out the local food scene, Wee told UNRESERVED.

“They really enjoyed it. Penang is a very good place to just eat and relax. The quality of care is pretty good. Although [it] may seem very busy and chaotic, it is nowhere as crazy and overcrowded as hospitals in Jakarta. Plus, it appears the expertise and competency of Malaysian doctors are highly regarded,” Wee said.

The new wealth is health

As one of Malaysia’s top treatment hotspots, Penang accounts for more than half of its medical tourists and almost half of the country’s medical tourism revenue. No Malaysian state has so aggressively courted this sector as Penang – one of the first to jump on the bandwagon.

penang rickshaw
Penang is one of the driving forces behind the region’s boom in medical tourism. Photo: iStock

The latest development is a RM2 billion medical hub which will be the state’s first 600-bed private hospital when completed. Another private hospital is being proposed. The reason behind this appetite is obvious: money.

Precise numbers are hard to pin down, partly because of inconsistencies in defining medical travel and a lack of verifiable data at the national level. Some national statistics include a tourist who falls sick or a mere spa visitor. Others do not include these nor companions accompanying medical travellers, in-country expatriates or multiple episodes that occur in the span of one medical visit.

Estimates of global market value range from US$10-15 billion to US$61 billion in 2016, according to research firm Allied Market Research.Patients Beyond Borders believes it to be US$65-87.5 billion, based on 20-24 million cross-border patients and an average spend of US$3,410 per visit, including medically-related costs, cross-border and local transport, in-patient stay and accommodations.

“For every ringgit spent on healthcare, an estimated three ringgit is spent on ancillary services such as food, transport and accommodation, with a total impact to the economy of RM1.8 billion,” the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council told UNRESERVED.

By 2026, market research firm Acumen Research and Consulting projects the global market value to reach US$162 billion.

This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s September 2019 issue from the article HEALTH IS WEALTH (AND VICE VERSA).

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