Malaysia is gradually opening borders for medical tourism: Only cancer patients allowed to enter as of now

Impact of Covid-19 on Medical Tourism in Malaysia

Around 600 Indonesians used to visit one of the Penang pharmacies every day indeed, each paying as much as RM1,000 on medicines before Malaysia closed its borders in answer to the Covid-19 disease outbreak. Around three to six months, their physicians gave them prescriptions for medications. Not all medicines were available in Indonesia that they purchased here. Imagine getting out of blood pressure or cardiac medicine, and there is no way in your country to buy it.

They call the Pharmacies in Malaysia and want to order, but they could not do anything. To middle and upper-class Indonesians, the condition for medical care was not a matter of leisure. They also have to go to Malaysia for surgeries and drugs because the health care system in their country is not so developed. In the strictest phases of the movement control order, sales at pharmacies dropped by as much as 80 per cent.

Malaysian doctors will not say that medical tourists are their Indonesian heart patients. A medical visitor, though having something like a root canal, a nose job or breast enhancement, would be someone there partly for a holiday. Whenever an Indonesian goes to them with heart issues, whether he or she wants to live, it is usually at a critical point, needing urgent surgery. Several heart patients in Indonesia had already been calling their Malay doctors with chest pain complaints.

They knew that treatment was required, although, with the boundaries locked, there was nothing they could do. Most doctors expressed the concern about allowing Indonesian patients into Malaysia due to the neighbouring country's Covid-19 rates of infection. Cardiothoracic surgeons held teleconferences with their Indonesian patients to verify their post-surgery recovery.

Patients with whom they have worked would find it beneficial even through teleconferencing to interact with them. They need to speak to them and get their surgical wounds examined. Doctors felt there had to be compulsory quarantine upon arrival, even though they had tested negative initially. That has to be enforced by the government. First, they have to take care of the Malaysians. Covid-19 in Indonesia is far from secure.

As the borders reopen

Now since the government has agreed to open up borders to healthcare travellers, medical tourism in Malaysia is expected to start its recovery shortly. There are signs, for instance, that Indonesians are keen on travelling to Penang for medical care and procedures. That being said, this growth is treated with a fair dose of caution by local private hospitals. However, there are concerns that if medical tourism is fully operational again without a rigorous standard operating procedure ( SOP), Covid-19 clusters will grow inside the private healthcare industry in Malaysia.

"We are going to take small steps. We are happy that medical tourism can start again. Still, we mustn't jeopardise everything Malaysians have done to flatten the Covid-19 curve," states Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh, Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia (APHM) 's president.

Of the more than 1.2 million medical tourists who arrived in 2018, some 670,000 or 56% were Indonesians and over half went to Penang. The Klang Valley and Melaka are important centres for medical tourism, too. They are aware of the figures in Indonesia.

What happens if they have Covid-19 medical tourists? They cannot be admitted to state-funded hospitals. That is just not appropriate. Since Malaysia's battle against Covid-19 started, only state hospitals have handled patients with the virus. Private hospitals and clinics are expected to refer those cases to the state right away. When their international patients arrive, and despite all the precautions that they test positive for Covid-19, they still have the potential to develop severe complications because they already have other ailments.

"We are proud of the Health Ministry for its handling of the pandemic. We don't want to burden government hospitals or create more trouble for the frontliners," says Dr Kuljit. APHM has recommended all private hospitals not to be liberal in admitting international patients again, to obey the comprehensive SOP strictly and to be very sure that only COVID-19-negative patients and their caretakers will be entering the country.

According to the Malaysian Healthcare Tourism Council (MHTC), the majority of incoming patients in the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) duration are for cancer treatment. MHTC CEO Sherene Azli stated earlier that most patients came for orthopaedic, oncology, cardiology and in vitro fertilisation. Still, after MCO was introduced, the industry will have to concentrate on a small, more urgent community.

"This is because, during phase one of reopening the industry, we could only focus on complex cases where they require immediate treatment. This was only open to those who are willing to pay for the chartered flights because commercial flights are not allowed yet," Azli explains.

The second phase of reactivating the medical tourism industry will see the entry from nations that are deemed under Covid-19 as safe zones as the committee needs to defend the health of the residents, before actually entering the final step of welcoming patients via passenger planes. The last step is also focused on the reopening of Malaysian frontiers with other nations.

She added the committee had also assisted in telemedicine development and implementation during the MCO. If any of their patients are unable to access medicines where they are from, they will be given teleconsultation and telemedicine throughout that time. Their position at MHTC is to help promote the delivery in cases involving policies. If they do not assist with that way, then the patients will feel abandoned, and we potentially lose the patients globally.

Majority of their branding development and initiatives have been concentrated on digital and online with other countries, through their digitisation services at the moment, and they are improving their services in the flawless customer experience so that when the patients come in, they will be able to greet them all with arms wide open.

Malaysia is known for its quality of international healthcare standards. Still, they also needed to ensure that people remember us during the MCO because if they do not highlight their brand and industry, they are in danger of becoming omitted. And they would not want to see that taking place.