Interview: Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council CEO Sherene Azli on the past, present and future of medical tourism in Malaysia.
The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), is an agency under the Ministry of Health Malaysia, tasked to raise Malaysia’s profile as the world’s top-of mind destination for world class healthcare services. Established in 2009, MHTC functions to facilitate the overall development of the Malaysian healthcare travel industry, by coordinating industry collaborations and building valuable public-private partnerships, at home and abroad.
We asked MHTC CEO Sherene Azli to tell us more about the council.
Reflecting on the history of Malaysia in terms of the medical tourism market, we were latecomers into the game. Other than the state of Penang in Malaysia which started a bit earlier, we were about 20 to 30 years well behind neighbouring destinations like Singapore and Thailand. Hence, when we wanted to get onto the bandwagon of medical tourism, one of the key things we recognised was that we needed to get a boost in order to be competitive in the industry.
The private sector then requested the Ministry of Health to start looking into medical tourism as being a potential economic growth area. So, in 2009, the Ministry of Health set up the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), with a mandate to become an industry enabler. In 2011, we moved forward with two mandates. One to promote medical tourism for the country, and the second concerning facilitation for the industry; when it comes to enabling stakeholders to come on board, with the introduction of enablers like tax allowances, visa extensions, etc. Those formed MHTC’s two main thrusts: promotion and facilitation.
Since then, we started promoting into different parts of the world. 2011-2015 was the first phase, during which the council operated very much like a government agency. I came on board in 2015, with the mandate to turn around MHTC into a full-fledged marketing-driven organisation, running it like a private sector organisation. We identified gaps in things like market intelligence, and how to look into the ROIs of going into markets, and so on. We also began engaging more closely with the private sector stakeholders, gathering what exactly they wanted to do, versus what we think they should do. That public-private partnership has strengthened over the past few years, and the mandate from the Ministry of Health is that even though we are promoting medical travel, we must make sure that patient safety is given utmost importance. It’s not about the commercialisation – but delivering quality healthcare services to both our local and international medical travellers. In the past three years of our experience “growing up”, we found that this turned out to be a strong competitive edge for Malaysia. The fact that people know our healthcare facilities are governed under the Minister of Health, and that patient interests and the quality delivery of healthcare are given utmost priority. Another one of our contributing factors is the competitive edge in the market of which we have almost immediate access to our specialists and our hospitals, unlike in other countries, where the waiting time to get an appointment is long. But the selling proposition that is strongest on top of our quality offering, I believe, is the affordability. Due to heavy market regulation under the Ministry of Health, with fee schedules and price capping, our doctors cannot overcharge patients. This is especially comforting for patients coming from abroad, knowing that not only we provide world class quality and immediate accessibility, and we are also very affordable.
Within this region, the stronger players are Malaysia, Thailand, and historically, Singapore. Singapore however have priced themselves out, as they are three to four times more expensive than Malaysia. Thailand is priced higher than us and can even be double our prices.
Fee capping in Malaysia does help to moderate all prices and this has been key in bringing Malaysia up to the level it is now. Governed under the Ministry of Health and through the public sector, we are enabling the private sector to gain the trust of the medical travellers. They can come in to Malaysia knowing that the quality is world class because all members of the council need to meet certain criteria before they can officially join MHTC’s Partnership Programme. The main criterion is that of having international accreditation. There are about 250 private facilities in Malaysia. But how do you differentiate among them? How do you know that they are good enough to handle international patient needs? How do you know that they can deliver the world class services? The first filter is that they need to have international accreditation. A healthcare provider may host huge numbers of medical travellers, but if the facility does not have international accreditation, we won’t admit them as our member facility.
Are just hospitals and clinics members?
The MHTC Partnership Programme recognises healthcare facilities that provide excellent services to international patients. However, MHTC does seek to establish associate members such as travel agents or even airlines, who are essential players along the value chain of delivering end-to-end care to medical travellers. Through collaborations with such industry players, we are able to provide services such as our concierge and lounge services at two international gateways, Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA)_ and Penang International Airport (PIA). MHTC has a lounge in KLIA, at gate eight in the arrivals area and a concierge at the arrival concourse in PIA, both with an ambulance bay just outside Our services go the extra mile, not only with a comfortably furbished lounge but also by welcoming patients who land in KLIA at the aero bridge and taking them through fast track immigration to afford patients their peace of mind. Aside from our Meet-and-Greet services, we ensure that patients receive other forms of needed services such as good translating/ interpreting services. Hence the reason why we have partnerships with travel agents and facilitators in the region.
Seeing a growing number of healthcare travellers from China, we are gearing up to adapt to their culture. It’s not just about being able to communicate the same lingo, but also to understand their sensitivities and culture, and that is something that we strive for.
So, you’re really talking about an end to end solution.
Exactly. From the minute they land right through the process of seeking treatment, and finally when their return home, where we continue to support with post-recovery services such as follow-up calls and rehabilitation, if needed.
How do you help establishments grow and promote themselves abroad?
Part of our efforts include facilitating investment tax allowances for the enhancement or renovation of hospitals, or the building of new hospitals catering for medical tourists and tax breaks on marketing efforts abroad Fulfilling our mandate to promote the medical travel industry, we collaborate with a number of agencies in enabling the facilities to expedite their operations and provide better service as well as marketing the healthcare facilities through campaigns, on-ground activations, speaking engagements and other social and traditional media related efforts.
How are your KPI’s?
In terms of performance, from 2011 to 2017, we have been recording an average annual growth of 16 – 17 %. In 2016, we saw a 23% growth from 2015. In terms of spending, a medical tourist spends about 3 to 4 times more than a normal tourist. Medical tourists tend to also bring their family members along, numbers which are not taken into account in the calculation, so technically, the spill-over effect is really huge. Last year, we recorded about 1.3 billion Malaysian Ringgit in medical revenue alone. So, with the multiplier effect, plus wellness, dental and other ancillary services, which are not included in that 1.3 billion, this will contribute about 4 to 5 billion Ringgit to Malaysia’s GDP. If we do as well in terms of driving growth as we expect to, we project about 10 billion Ringgit contribution to the economy by 2020.
What are your main source markets?
Our largest market is currently Indonesia, which accounts for 50% to 60% of our arrivals. Last year we exceeded our target of 1 million arrivals and close to 60% are still Indonesians. That being said, we are seeing growth from other ASEAN countries like Myanmar and Vietnam – so much so that we have started opening representative offices in these two countries. At the same time, we have seen double-digit growth from China every year for the past two years. China is growing – especially for fertility, India is also on the rise. The population for southeast Asia is 690 million, combined with 1.4 billion in China and 1.2 billion in India we have quite a large volume of potential healthcare travellers.
Why is ITB Berlin important for you then?
For us, it is important to go to ITB Berlin, as Malaysia is Official Partner Country, and because branding Malaysia strongly and creating awareness about Malaysia in a global sense is very important. We also understand there will be special medical tourism track which we want to be a part of.
You are strongly promoting Malaysia as the “fertility hub of Asia” and “the cardiology hub of Asia”. Why fertility?
In carving a niche identity to set Malaysia apart from its regional competitors, we chose to anchor on our medical capabilities and capacity in the field of fertility. Malaysia currently has among the highest success rates in the world for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). The world average is about 50 to 55% clinical success rate, while MHTC Member facilities on average record about 60 – 65% and we have centres exceeding 80%. These successes also motivated the positioning of Malaysia as a fertility hub. Two years ago, China lifted the one-child policy, which means that there are about 90 million couples looking to have more children. Out of this figure, it was estimated that half of them are over 40, and would therefore require help to conceive. In view of this growing need, Malaysia Healthcare’s fertility healthcare providers have equipped themselves with state-of-the-art technologies and highly trained doctors and embryologists to provide world-class quality healthcare to aspiring parents. All this is offered at affordable rates, so couples do not need to break the bank to have a chance at parenthood. Malaysia’s well-regulated healthcare system also affords a variety of treatments that cater to the various needs of couple on this journey of parenthood. To further support this, couples are afforded their peace of mind through our seamless end-to-end journey experience that caters to their needs prior to their arrival in Malaysia, all throughout treatment with post-care follow-ups even after they have returned home.
Is there a longer-term vision, looking 5 to 10 years out?
We are looking at industry sustainability, meaning that it’s not just about this year or about 2020, it’s about 2030 and beyond.
Chief among our initiatives, moving forward, is to position Malaysia as the Fertility and Cardiology hub in Asia, to achieve greater heights and encourage industry growth within Malaysia. Before we can market abroad, we need to look at the whole ecosystem, so we are looking at all these niche centres of excellence. When people around the world know about the success of fertility clinics in Malaysia, naturally, medical travellers will be attracted to come. We are looking into organising an industry roundtable, training more embryologists, and enabling the latest technologies for fertility treatments, so the industry can continue growing and attain long-term sustainability.
Looking into the future, we will continue to keep a close eye on cost management, because this will give us a strong edge. Maintaining our affordability is key for the growth of the industry over the next five or ten years.
Just to recap, but I know you spoke about this in the first part of the conversation. What would you say are the three key selling points or USP’s of medical tourism in Malaysia?
The first is vital, and perhaps the greatest car-puller which attracts medical tourists to Malaysia, and that is the quality. For example, when speaking of fertility treatments, Malaysia is equipped with state-of-the-art technologies, highly skilled medical practitioners, and expertly trained embryologists. Malaysia’s healthcare system has been consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. For three years in a row, International Living magazine in the United States has rated Malaysia as the country with the best healthcare quality, accessibility, and affordability in the world – in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The second USP is about immediate accessibility. In places like the UK or Australia, patients have to wait a long time to get to see a specialist, but in Malaysia patients can get real-time access to our specialists. The third USP, as a complement to the other two, is the affordability. Our prices are very competitive compared to other countries, about 1/3 or half the price of our competition.
These three key selling points of healthcare travel in Malaysia is supported by the ease of communication that Malaysia offers. As a melting pot of cultures and languages, English, Malay, Chinese and Indian dialects are widely spoken throughout Malaysia. Healthcare travellers will feel at ease expressing their medical predicaments to healthcare professionals. Translators are also easily arranged for other languages.