With Obamacare entrenched in national debate and the economy still struggling to get on its feet, affordable, accessible health care seems like a world away for many ailing Americans. However, it may just be an ocean apart.
Medical tourism, the practice of crossing international borders for more affordable and available health care procedures at uncompromised quality, is a nascent and high growth industry, with U.S. patients actively seeking care in medical centers around the globe. A 2008 study by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions predicted that six million Americans will seek health care abroad by 2010.
And in this increasingly competitive field, Malaysia has the potential to be a rising star.
“Currently, medical travel in Malaysia approximates 370,000 patients coming largely from Indonesia, Middle East, and Australia seeking treatments and procedures,” said Vivian Ho, the Medical Tourism Association’s Managing Director for the Asia Pacific Region.
From 2001 to 2006, the number of foreign patients in Malaysia tripled, with medical tourism visits generating 59 million dollars in revenue in 2006. The Association of Private Hospitals in Malaysia projects that the number of medical tourists will continue to grow by about 30% throughout 2010.
Many accredit Malaysia’s current success to price, availability, quality, and the unique, hospitable culture.
Unlike many other Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia has prospered due to rich natural resources, decades of political stability and an amiable climate.
Medical tourism has been widely practice but seldom publicized. As many Malaysian healthcare professionals point out, the country has practiced medical tourism for decades, as a number of Indonesians, Singaporeans, and Australians have sought treatment in their hospitals to take advantage of lower cost, quality health care.
The Malaysian Ministry of Health and a number of private hospitals in the country are now taking steps to advance this industry in ensuring that the world takes notice.
“Malaysia has declared a national interest and intent to grow their presence in medical tourism significantly; and progress is being made in organizing this effort with initial steps such as branding ‘Malaysia Healthcare’. Its broad-based medical capabilities, attractiveness as a travel destination, health & wellness choices makes Malaysia an interesting medical tourism provider,” commented Ho.
Over 30 private hospitals have been selected by the Ministry of Health to specialize in international health care as regional and global providers. These hospitals have state-of-the-art facilities that surpass many U.S. hospitals and are staffed by internationally trained physicians.
“We have physicians that train [in] the UK, Australia… Mayo [Clinic in the U.S.] and other medical centers around the world,” said Dato Mohd Radzif Bin Mohn Yunus, CEO of Institut Jantung Negara (National Heart Institute). “[But] The one distinctive value that we have is the ratio value [of price] with the rest of the world.”
To get a sense of the savings, consider the following data from the APHM website. Cardiac bypass surgery would cost about U.S. $6,000-$7,000 in Malaysia. Even adding on the cost of airfare and accommodations, the total cost of medical procedures falls far below that of the U.S.
The elective procedures offered by Malaysia hospitals match those available in the U.S. but at a fraction of the cost. Open-heart surgeries, angiograms, knee and hip replacements, cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, Lasik, cancer treatments, fertility treatments, and comprehensive wellness screenings are successfully performed on patients. Furthermore, because the Malaysian government subsidizes roughly 98% of healthcare costs in public hospitals, private health care facilities do not suffer the long wait lists as those of the U.S.
Within the past two years, many of the private hospitals have undergone extensive renovations. The new facilities are equipped with cutting edge technology that is equivalent, if not superior, to the standard in many U.S. hospitals.
In the field of cancer research and treatment, hospitals such as Sime Darby Subang Jaya, Prince Court Medical Center, Pantai Hospital, KPJ Health Care Damansara, and Penang Adventist to name a few, are using 64-slice PET CT and 3 T MRI machines, which simultaneously pinpoint cancerous growths of in the body and perform cardiac CT with 70% less radiation exposure- all in less time than previous model. Oncologists in these leading hospitals are also using three-dimensional tumor imaging systems that capture precise snapshots of cancerous growths.
“We are constantly upgrading and improving our facilities to get the best outcomes… [to] benefit both local and international patients,” said Sue Lee, the Director of Corporate Services at Sime Darby Healthcare Subang Jaya. The facility of over 300 beds has just inaugurated a new Cancer Treatment Center and Research Foundation.
The Invasive Cardiovascular Laboratories at the Institut Jantung Negara (IJN), or National Heart Institute, uses a sophisticated electrophysiology cardiolab and recording system to better assess the health of patients. The nation’s leading heart institution performed over 8,000 interventional cardiology procedures last year.
Beyond procedures and equipment, hospitals are aggressively expanding capacity and are focusing on optimizing the overall experience for the international patient. Facilities are thoughtfully designed to U.S. standards with luxury and comfort in mind. Newly designed hospital wings feature spacious reception areas and private quarters equipped with WiFi, plasma TVs, private bathrooms and made-to-order meals.
At Pantai Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, the rates for spacious private suites and single rooms start at RM 630 (US $186) and RM 238 ($70) respectively.
Echoing the same sentiment that built up the iconic Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysians are proving that innovation is key. Open two years ago, the Prince Medical Center in Kuala Lumpur has won commendations for the hospital’s innovative design, which houses cafes, eateries and seating areas under a six-storey high glass atrium.
IJN is undergoing an expansion of their facilities by 78,401 square feet to increase the number of beds by 70%. Within the past two years new facilities have opened at Prince Court Medical Center, Sime Darby Subang Jaya, KPJ Healthcare Group, Penang Adventist Hospital, and Pantai Hospitals.
To help the patient and their companions feel even more at home, hospitals are adding Western-style amenities to their facilities. At the newly opened Renal Care Center in the Penang Adventist Hospital, which is part of the Adventist Health Network, dialysis patients can watch television on individual, adjustable television screens while they receive treatments. Starbucks and Baskin Robbins have just opened their doors near the first floor lobby at Pantai Hospital.
Most private hospitals now have international patient centers that can be contacted online or by phone. Staffed by multilingual employees, these centers cater to foreign patients. They estimate the cost of procedure and the length of stay, help patients chose the right doctor, connect with current doctors and insurance companies, arrange flights, hotels and vacation packages, and handle visa extensions.
To ensure continuity of care between a patient’s domestic and international doctor, many hospitals in Malaysia are implementing hospital-wide electronic records system and Picture Archiving Communication Systems (PACS) that create electronic images of x-rays and scans. These systems create documents that can be easily transmitted between physicians and hospitals. Prince Court hospital uses a Total Hospital Information System to keep detailed record of patient information from admission to discharge.
Malaysian hospitals truly have the world standard in mind. In March of 2009, IJN CEO Dato Mohd Radzif Bin Mohn Yunus shared in an article with Business Today that IJN benchmarks its performance against leading facilities such as Cleveland Clinic and finds the outcomes “heartening”.
In order to judge quality of care against other leading facilities, many private hospitals in Malaysia are seeking international accreditation. Prince Court Medical Center, Penang Adventist Hospital, and International Specialist Eye Centre are Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited. Pantai Hospital, National Heart Institute (IJN), and Sime Darby Medical Center of Subang Jaya in Kuala Lumpur are set to become JCI accredited by the end of the year.
In addition, the Malaysian Society for Quality of Health (MSQH), an internationally recognized accreditation that has similar standards as JCI, has accredited the majority
of Malaysian hospitals. Other facilities earned the “Baby Friendly” certification by the World Health Organization.
The Malaysian government is also creating a special medical tourism branch to address the needs of international patients and they recently extended the duration of a medical visa from 30 days to six months in order to accommodate longer recovery times for international patients. Endeavors in medical tourism are now a nationwide effort in Malaysia, and their progress is set to grow.
“We invite the [health care] tourist to come in and see what we have to offer, to get to know the system,” said Mohd Razif. The numbers and trends indicate that many will take him up on the offer.