Malaysia and Thailand take on Singapore for high-tech medical crown

Singapore has long been considered one of the leading hubs in Asia for medical tourism, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranking it as the sixth best country in the world and the best in Asia for patient-centric healthcare.

In the last few years, however, the dynamics have changed and countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, China and India are improving their healthcare infrastructure to compete with Singapore to become Asia’s most popular medical tourism destination.

While Singapore still hosts one of the most sophisticated, high-end healthcare architecture, it’s taking a hit in terms of value, with higher pricing premiums and the availability of cheaper and equivalent healthcare services in neighbouring countries providing stiff competition.

Higher salaries for clinicians, exorbitant real-estate prices and substantial investment in state-of-the-art medical equipment has increased the overall cost of medical care.

A recent report compiled by Patients Beyond Borders positions Singapore as Asia’s most expensive medical tourism destination, and according to BMI Research, a heart bypass costs 41 per cent more in Singapore than Thailand, and over 106 per cent when compared to Malaysia.

Singapore has seen a 25 per cent decrease in the number of patients year-on-year, with its medical tourism revenues dropping from $US1 billion to $832 million in 2013. Malaysia, on the other hand, reported compound annual growth of 29.3 per cent in patient arrivals that year.

Malaysia and Thailand are also actively promoting medical tourism, increasing healthcare standards and leveraging the power of advanced healthcare technologies to deliver high-end medical procedures at cost-effective rates.

Thailand’s long-established tourist credentials, combined with a rapidly escalating healthcare architecture, makes it one of the top destinations in south-east Asia for patients eyeing cost-effective, quality medical facilities. It now receives 1.4 million medical tourists a year compared to 600,000 for Singapore.

Malaysia, however, is now leading in terms of patient throughput, and is expected to receive more than 1.9 million tourists in the next five years. Malaysia was named as the Medical Travel Destination of the Year 2015 by the International Medical Travel Journal.

Pulse+IT spoke to Sherene Azli, CEO of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), about the growth of medical tourism in Asian countries like Malaysia, and the steps MHTC has been taking to increase the number of patients.

What do you think makes Malaysia one of the most popular medical tourist destinations in the world?

Malaysia has been working actively towards strengthening its healthcare system by encouraging public-private relationships (PPPs) to improve accessibility and affordability of quality healthcare services for patients across the globe. We are strengthening our technological infrastructure and also supporting it with a good regulatory framework to ensure that we provide the best medical services.

For countries like Singapore, the biggest challenge is delivering quality healthcare at affordable pricing. How do you think Malaysia is solving the challenge of keeping the operating costs low?

Every country has its own challenges. For us, the biggest challenge is to provide an equitable ecosystem for patients, and ensure that they get the best healthcare facilities. We currently have more than 220 private equipped hospitals that provide expert treatments in the fields of cardiology, fertility, dentistry, ophthalmology, orthopaedics, and neurology. We also have a higher-than-average availability of qualified of medical personnels to ensure that patients get proper attention.

I believe that affordability of our services stems from the fact that we are a competitive manufacturing and service economy in Asia that has a slightly lower cost-of-living when compared to our neighbouring countries. We also have tight regulations in place to ensure that healthcare providers and physicians charge patients reasonably for medical services.

What do you think is the role of healthcare technologies in supporting Malaysia’s medical tourism industry?

Malaysia is actively looking towards adapting modern, state-of-the-art medical devices and healthcare technologies. We’re looking to use advanced digital healthcare solutions like telehealth, mHealth and EHRs to bring down the operating costs, while improving patient care and optimising outcomes. We believe that investing in medical technologies would eventually strengthen our position as the leading healthcare provider, thereby enticing more patients to our country.

Apart for adapting technology, we’re also training more specialists, nurses and healthcare personnel in medical technologies to ensure that we can leverage their full potential, and serve more patients annually.

Singapore has been known for providing top-notch medical facilities, with some of its hospitals gaining international accreditation. How is Malaysia placed on this front?

We’ve been working towards improving our healthcare infrastructure, in order to deliver quality and effective healthcare.

Tropicana Medical Centre, National Heart Institute, Pantai Hospitals, KPJ Healthcare, Mahkota Medical Centre, Darul Ehsan Medical Centre and Gleneagles Medical Centre Penang are some of the private hospitals in Malaysia to have gained international accreditation.

In fact, Malaysia’s Sunway Medical Centre emerged as the first hospital in the south-east Asian region to be awarded with international accreditation from the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS).

Our hospitals have also received internationally recognised awards, including International Medical Travel Journal Medical Travel Awards 2015, Reader’s Digest Asia Gold Trusted Brand Award 2015, and Frost & Sullivan’s Malaysia Excellence Awards 2015.

What are some of the challenges that Malaysia faces as it looks to encourage medical tourism on its home ground?

Every country has its own challenges. Our government’s inclined towards prioritising healthcare facilities for its citizens over foreigners, which I think is pretty obvious. But, then, we are flexing our private healthcare facilities to ensure that we can cater to the large number of patients that visit us every year.

I also feel that we have been a little late in this industry, compared to other players in the region, which means we need to scale up quickly to provide competitive healthcare facilities.

That being said, we believe that healthcare is not a commodity, which is the reason we don’t actively promote it. We tend to look at healthcare from a holistic perspective, where we believe in creating rich patient experiences.

So, our biggest challenge is to constantly improve our healthcare infrastructure, train our workforce in new technologies and streamline our regulatory policies to ensure that we’re the leading destination in the world for providing quality and affordable healthcare.

Posted in Asia Pacific Health IT

Tags: Singapore

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