Malaysia’s Healing Power

For centuries, Malaysia has been a choice destination for legions who come answering the call of the tropics, the exoticism that envelops the Malay Peninsula, its astounding beaches and mountains, and even the faded colonial glories of the British Empire.

Few leave without deep feelings about the beauty that lies within it: from sprawling Johor Bahru in the south—where Malaysia seems to plunge into the Straits of Singapore—to Penang to the north, where the country seamlessly blends its exceptional culture with Thailand’s. Indeed, the Malay Peninsula is a wonder.

Today, an ever-growing number of medical tourists are also setting their bearings for Malaysia.

Due to considerable advances in higher education and medical facilities, when it comes to medical tourism, the country appears on the brink of rivaling India, Singapore and Thailand, places that long have held a solid grip on Asian medical tourism.

With its natural wonders, history and flair, Malaysia is not only a great vacation destination, but its emergence as a healthcare provider for foreigners saw an increasing number of its private hospitals copying the model of other Asian countries by tailoring packages, deluxe accommodations and even air travel aimed specifically at attracting foreigners.

It has succeeded beyond early projections. Medical tourism to Malaysia is increasing at such a high rate that those arriving in this magical land for medical treatment have more than tripled in six years—from less than 100,000 in 2001, to 341,288 in 2007.

The figure is still skyrocketing. Statistics released by the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia (APMH) show that more than 282,000 foreigners sought medical care during the first three quarters of 2008, adding a substantial amount of foreign currency to the country’s coffers.

Despite those impressive numbers, those figures are lower than originally predicted due to the economic downturn that stunned most of the world.

Dr. Chan Kok Ewe, director of the Island Hospital in Penang—a popular Malaysian health treatment facility for foreigners—and chairman of the Penang Health Association, prefers to look at the bright side: “Yes, [the figures] were less than encouraging,” he says, “but we should use this slack period to prepare for the next growth phase. To do this, we have to cultivate new markets with a structured strategy and guided investments.”

Travel agents are expected to play a large part in this strategy, as most Malaysian institutions will rely heavily on their services to customize medical travel.

Generally, travel specialists arranging medical trips are advised to contact Malaysian healthcare facilities—which normally do not pay commission—to begin the process. The bulk of profits are generated through booking side services, such as arranging accommodations and planning excursions for patients and traveling companions.

With the expected surge in medical tourism, Malaysia is shifting into high gear to attract foreigners seeking health care.

In May 2010, Kuala Lumpur will host more than 1,500 trade visitors, delegates, sponsors and exhibitors from the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the U.S. to the Asia Medical Tourism and Wellness Congress (GLOW 2010).

The event aims to provide networking opportunities for travel specialists and others contemplating entering the field. Glow 2010 will focus on how health industries reach out to foreigners and clarify the intricacies of medical tourism, while demonstrating new developments and technology.

The congress has the potential of proving profitable for American travel agents willing to dip their toes into medical tourism.

In addition, the Malaysian Health Ministry recently unveiled an international website as part of its concerted efforts to attract health travelers.

Health minister Seri Lio Tiong Lai says the website, “Is a gateway for potential patients and visitors to explore what the Malaysian healthcare sector offers in terms of medical treatment options, state-of-the-art health facilities and general information about Malaysia to benefit those interested in traveling here for care. Thirty-six private hospitals have been chosen to participate in the healthcare travel program, and we hope more [hospitals] will join in.”

“The multiplier effect of health tourism,” adds the minister, “would be a boost for other tourism-related industries such as hotel, transportation and touring because foreign patients are usually accompanied by family and friends who would also use these services.”

Most of those seeking treatment in Malaysia come from Indonesia, Japan, India and Europe, but a government-sponsored study shows Americans are swiftly discovering that Malaysia also offers excellent treatments at a fraction of U.S. costs.