By Sakini Mohd Said
Malaysia is among the top-notch destinations for medical tourism in the world and its healthcare and medical services have won global recognition. This final of three articles examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the medical tourism sector.
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – Since the start of this year, Hemakumari Sugayindran’s main mission was to ensure the smooth implementation of plans to harness the potential of healthcare tourism.
The senior executive of International Patient Centre (IPC) at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur (PHKL) and her team were committed to positioning PHKL as the hospital of choice among foreigners seeking medical care in various fields.
PHKL had been expecting a rise in healthcare visitor arrivals this year as the government had initially promoted 2020 as Malaysia Year of Healthcare Travel, alongside Visit Malaysia Year 2020.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak threw a spanner in the works, resulting in downturns in many industries and business sectors, including healthcare tourism, in Malaysia and globally.
Hemakumari said PHKL’s healthcare tourism business has seen rapid growth over the years and in February this year it opened the IPC, a special unit dedicated to providing top quality services to international patients.
“The IPC is not only designated to handle the needs of our healthcare tourists but is also spacious and located on the ground floor, thus facilitating registration and consultation processes,” she told Bernama.
ENCOURAGING SIGNS OF GROWTH
Hemakumari said IPC was set up in anticipation of a hike in the admission of international patients this year.
Although the ongoing pandemic has to a certain extent impacted the hospital’s healthcare tourism sector, the situation, nevertheless, did not dampen their spirit and the hospital continues to provide its best healthcare services to its international patients, who are mainly cancer patients from Indonesia.
They were admitted to PHKL before the Movement Control Order was imposed in March and were reluctant to return to their homeland as they are worried that they may not be able to return to Malaysia for follow-up treatments as long as the country’s international borders remain closed.
Malaysia’s healthcare tourism industry showed some encouraging signs of growth after the government opened its borders in phases to international patients, beginning July 1 after the Recovery Movement Control Order set in.
“During the (initial phase of) MCO, we didn’t get many calls from international patients as our borders were closed. But after our government announced that the borders will be reopened for healthcare travellers, IPC was inundated with calls.
“Most of the callers were new patients who wished to know how to go about seeking treatment and enquired about our oncology, paediatric, cardiology, neurosurgery, orthopaedic and gastroenterology treatments,” Hemakumari said.
Although Malaysia’s borders are open to foreigners seeking medical care in Malaysia, only critically ill patients and those in need of urgent medical attention with serious health issues such as cancer, and neurosurgery and paediatric cases are allowed entry. The patients must have a supporting letter from the hospital, which has to be a member of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC).
Approval for the patients to enter Malaysia is also subject to compliance with stringent standard operating procedures (SOPs) such as screening for COVID-19, securing the green light from the Immigration Department and travelling to Malaysia by air ambulance, personal jet or chartered flight in order to stem COVID-19 transmissions.
Hemakumari said even though the government has reopened its borders for international patients, PHKL is not in a rush to admit them as the safety of the Malaysian public and its doctors and staff is its top priority.
“We at IPC will first seek the approval from the treating doctor concerned whether he or she is willing to accept and treat the international patient based on the medical reports from their country of origin,” she said.
Interestingly, from their recent telephone conversations with potential international patients, it was clear that many of them did not view the pandemic as a deterrent to seeking treatment in Malaysia, she said.
“The callers didn’t ask if our hospital has any COVID-19 case or how the situation was in Malaysia. They just wanted to know how to seek treatment,” she said.
They are obviously not worried about the current spike in COVID-19 cases in Malaysia and are confident that the health authorities are capable of flattening the infection curve once again.
Last month, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah was quoted by the media as saying that Malaysia has been recognised by the World Health Organisation for its strong health system and universal health coverage amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
And last month, Malaysia’s healthcare tourism sector received another feather in its cap when it won the Health and Medical Tourism: Destination of the Year title for the fourth time at the International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) Medical Travel Awards 2020 ceremony in London.
Besides PHKL, international patient arrivals at other private hospitals in Malaysia and in the region have also seen a downward trend this year.
Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok was affected by the plunge in medical tourists travelling to Thailand as more than 50 percent of its patients came from overseas.
Like PHKL and many other hospitals worldwide, Bumrungrad International Hospital has also activated its online teleconsultation services.
PHKL emergency department senior medical officer Dr Mohd Ridzuan Abdul Razak said the teleconsultation services allow the hospital’s international patients to be remotely monitored by their doctors.
“This service is only offered to existing patients whose medical records are with PHKL. Teleconsultation is not offered to new patients as we don’t know what their health record is like.
“As for patients who need treatment like physiotherapy, it’s best that they see a doctor in their country. We will email their medical reports and discuss their progress and treatment they underwent previously with their doctor,” he said.
PHKL also offers postal delivery services for medicines required by their foreign patients who sought treatment at the hospital previously. However, the delivery service would depend on the drugs’ resistance and where the patient lives.
SECTOR WILL RECOVER
MHTC chief executive officer Sherene Azli, meanwhile, acknowledged the pandemic has hit the healthcare tourism sector hard and expected the market to decline in 2020 and 2021.
Nevertheless, MHTC is prepared to address any disruption in the inflow of medical tourists by continuously engaging with the government and industry leaders from public and private sectors to upgrade existing SOPs so that they fulfil the needs of the current situation.
The negative economic impact of the pandemic has forced MHTC to slash its 2020 medical tourism revenue target by 70 percent to RM500 million from the original projection of RM2 billion.
“Based on Malaysia’s excellent response to stemming the COVID-19 pandemic (based on its previous experience), the nation has been able to implement a healthcare travel bubble and resume medical tourism activities.
“It is carried out in ways that are safe for the patients entering the country while also taking into account the factor of national security. Stringent SOPs have also enabled our economy to recover gradually,” said Sherene.
She said although they have projected a decline in the healthcare tourism market in 2020 and 2021, MHTC has taken proactive measures to maintain its ties with its partners and stakeholders through webinars and discussions.
“Through these steps, we hope to focus on efforts to drive this industry’s sustainable growth so that Malaysia continues to be known as the ‘World’s Healthcare Marvel’,” she added.
Malaysia has successfully positioned itself as the destination of choice for international patients seeking treatment in the fields of cardiology, fertility, orthopaedics, urology, dentistry, cosmetic surgery and others.
Last year, its healthcare tourism sector generated revenue of RM1.7 billion from 1.3 million medical tourist arrivals from various countries.
“About 60 percent of our medical tourists are from Indonesia while the rest are from Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, Brunei and other countries,” she added.
Translated by Rema Nambiar
Malaysian National News Agency
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