The Dynamism of ASEAN’s Medical Tourism Sector

BY AHMAD AZUAR ZAINUDDIN
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Medical tourism has long been recognised as big business in the region, particularly in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. In this article, ACE Spotlight look at the landscape, enablers and potential growth areas that regional SMEs could tap.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines medical tourism as “medical tourist elect to travel across international borders to receive some form of medical treatment”. These treatments span across a full-range of medical services with the most common treatment being dental care, cosmetic surgery, elective surgery and fertility treatment. In defining medical tourists, it is important to subtract international patients who are expatriates seeking care in their country of residence as well as emergency cases.

Based on a report by US-based Patients Beyond Border, an organisation which monitors trends in medical tourism globally, it is estimated that the medical tourism sub-sector globally is expanding at a rate of more than 25% annually and is valued over US$55 billion with a market of over 11 million consumers. From these figures, nearly a third comprise of medical tourists travelling to Southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, it is important to appreciate that many medical tourists in Southeast Asia arrives from within the region itself. For instance, from an estimated 840,000 medical tourist arrivals to Malaysia, circa 640,000 hail from within Southeast Asia. Both Thailand and Singapore attracts 550,000 and 400,000 intra-ASEAN tourists, respectively.

In general, broad factors influencing people in the region to travel for healthcare includes medical cost, shorter waiting times for procedures, access to treatments unavailable in their native countries and more affordable travel cost given the availability of low-cost airlines. In addition, cultural similarity and distance are also factors influencing regional patients in their choice of medical care destination as evident in the influx of medical tourist travelling from Laos to Thailand and Indonesia to Malaysia.

According to Ghazali Musa, Professor of Business Strategy and Policy at Malaysia’s University Malaya, the region’s medical tourism explosion had its origin in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis when more developed Southeast Asian countries looking to diversify their income sources began promoting affordable and high-quality medical care to attract foreign patients.

Today, medical tourism is a big business in the region with countries beginning to carve a niche beyond the broad factors discussed earlier. For example, Singapore is well-known for excellent diagnosis and treatment of oncology as well as stem cell regenerative therapies while Malaysia for its comprehensive health screenings and Thailand for cosmetic surgery.

MEDICAL TOURISM ENABLERS
While we have looked at the macro level on factors influencing foreign patient’s decision in determining countries in the region where they obtain medical treatments and care, perhaps we could dig deeper to appreciate factors influencing their selection of healthcare provider. In this regard, it is important to first and foremost satisfy their primary motivation which is to get high-quality medical care that is otherwise unavailable in their home country at lower-cost.

With quality and access serving as the most important factors, it is thus key for healthcare providers to invest in state-of-the-art medical equipment and facilities and to recruit quality medical practitioners such as specialist doctors and nurses. However, this doesn’t end here; healthcare providers also need to strategically market their services in ways that appeal to the medical consumers.

One way to gain the confidence and trust of consumers is through obtaining internationally-recognised accreditations which certify the level of quality for the healthcare services provided. With regard to this, the Joint Commission International (JCI) is a reputable group that has been vetting healthcare providers in the region since 2002. Today, Thailand boasts 53-accredited hospitals, followed by Singapore and Malaysia with 22 and 13, respectively.


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One way to gain the confidence and trust of consumers is through obtaining internationally-recognised accreditations which certify the level of quality for the healthcare services provided. With regard to this, the Joint Commission International (JCI) is a reputable group that has been vetting healthcare providers in the region since 2002. Today, Thailand boasts 53 accredited hospitals, followed by Singapore and Malaysia with 22 and 13, respectively.

Moreover, small medium enterprises (SMEs) should also consider enhancing the tourism component of medical tourism by venturing into tourism-related products such as accommodation, transportation and travel. As many foreign patients are accompanied by loved-ones, perhaps healthcare operators may consider packaging their services with tourism-related activities which the region is already so famous for. In this context, healthcare operators should consider collaborating with players involved in the tourism industry.

SOME POTENTIAL GROWTH AREAS
Halal Medical Tourism - There is a growing demand for halal medical tourism in the region, especially in Malaysia and Singapore which receives a large share of medical tourists from neighbouring Indonesia. Halal medical tourism refers to medical tourism which adheres to the guidelines under the Shariah Law. For instance, healthcare providers should provide halal medications when available such as porcine-free gelatin capsules for medications and non-porcine insulin.

Beyond offering halal medications, healthcare operators involved in halal medical tourism should consider offering Muslim-friendly services such as halal food, qibla directions, prayer facilities, provide doctors and nurses that are the same gender as the patients and if required, funeral services according to Islamic requirements.

The potential is there as within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Malaysia has already carved its name as the most popular destinations among Muslim tourists, while Singapore and Thailand rank as first and second among non-OIC members.

“We realise that if we can come up with halal pharmaceutical products there’s a big market for it. As far as Muslims concerned, if you have a halal product, there is no compromise,” says Jamil Bidin, CEO of Malaysia-based Halal Industry Development Corporation.

Dental Tourism - It is not just the most developed countries in the region that are reaping the benefits of medical tourism. Cambodia is beginning to gain a reputation as a low-cost and high-quality destination for dental tourism. Accordingto Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, there is an excellent opportunity for the country to promote itself as a dental tourism destination. People from countries such as the US, Australia as well as neighbouring Southeast Asian countries could save up to 70% on the cost of dental treatments in Cambodia. With the savings, they could cover the cost of a holiday in Cambodia.

In essence, as access to healthcare in Southeast Asia’s less developed countries improves in tandem with region’s overall economic progress, it is unlikely that the demand for medical tourism would subside anytime soon. The region’s rising affluence would influence the consumer’s conditions and preferences. Should ASEAN achieve its intended goal of becoming a single regional; the more likely scenario would be a dynamic sector with healthy competitions and collaborations driven on innovative healthcare packages and services.