Taking medical tourism to the next level

MHTC aims to give patients a seamless journey, which means improving every touchpoint through digitalisation


MALAYSIA Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) CEO Mohd Daud Mohd Arif aims to take the council to greater heights.

Before taking up the role in April, Mohd Daud was the secretary of Tourism, Arts and Culture’s (Motac) Tourism Policy and International Affairs Division and the lead shepherd of the APEC Tourism Working Group.

Having been working on medical tourism for about 12 years with Motac, he had worked with MHTC in many areas, especially in promoting Malaysian healthcare abroad to some of the international committees that he chairs.

With his economics and international relations background, Mohd Daud started in the public sector with the International Trade and Industry Ministry where he focused on international negotiations that cover a wide variety of sectors, including manufacturing and services.

Being well-acquainted with medical services across borders since the beginning of his career, he described Malaysia as a preferred destination for many patients abroad, listing quality services, competitive prices and accessibility as key factors.

“What we do have, first and foremost, is quality services with very qualified doctors, good facilities and a well-known success rate.

“Beyond that, we also offer cost-effective services. When compared to other developed countries in North America or Europe, we are much more competitive in providing these services.

“Lastly is accessibility. It is very easy to engage and almost immediately make an appointment with a doctor in Malaysia. Elsewhere, sometimes the wait could be as long as six months to a year,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

Current and New Markets

MHTC is targeting regions or places with shorter flight distance to Malaysia as some critical cases need fast treatment.

However, there are also tourists who come primarily for leisure travel and seek medical treatment at the same time.

The treatments are usually not critical such as health screening, dental services and wellness.

Regionally, Malaysia normally receives tourists from China, Vietnam and Myanmar, but Indonesia has always been the main source of medical tourists.

For China alone, Mohd Daud said MHTC is aware of its sizeable market and the huge potential that comes with it, which is why MHTC has been targeting the country’s secondary and tertiary cities where income level has risen.

“Their desire to seek better medical services outside of China is even stronger. There is a lot of potential for them to come to Malaysia, especially in the fertility treatment, partly because they have lifted their one-child policy and many of them would like to build a bigger family.

“There are bigger parts of healthcare that Malaysia can provide. I know very clearly on the leisure tourism side, Malaysia has been promoted as a lung cleansing destination for Chinese tourists. They do come here to relax and rejuvenate before going home,” he said.

He added that beyond this short-haul and medium-haul market, MHTC is casting its net as wide as possible, eyeing new potential markets including India and the Middle East, but these are still at the exploratory stage.

Strategies for Pandemic

No sector is being spared from Covid-19. For the most part, tourism is viewed as the first sector to be hit and would probably be the last to recover.

Closed borders and travel restrictions are making it hard for MHTC and its stakeholders in bringing growth to this particular segment.

Mohd Daud said the pandemic has been a wake-up call for the industry to be ready to ensure sustainability.

“Before Covid-19, the word sustainability was taken lightly, but now people understand the severe impact the industry is facing.

“We need to come up with innovative solutions to be ready to handle future shocks,” he opined.

Despite everything, Mohd Daud acknowledged that Covid-19 is pushing digitalisation.

“Digitalisation is nothing new. Even without Covid-19, we should be moving in that direction or get left behind. The silver lining of the pandemic is that it accelerates this process,” he said.

In February, MHTC signed a memorandum of understanding with digital healthcare platform DoctorOnCall to facilitate continuity of patient care.

As a result, 75 MHTC member hospitals have access to the platform’s digital healthcare capabilities to provide telehealth services, such as online engagements and webinars, allowing patients to continue consultations with doctors in Malaysia amid travel restrictions.

MHTC’s strategy at the beginning is to work closely with hospitals and promote medical services to foreigners residing in Malaysia, so that they can seek treatment confidently during the pandemic.

Besides private hospitals, MHTC has been working closely with some of the government agencies related to the medical industry, namely the Health Ministry (MoH), the National Security Council (NSC) and the Immigration Department.

“We were the first in Malaysia to establish a medical travel bubble to bring in critical international patients for treatment. Forget about profit and revenue, we are looking at giving patients hope in recovery.

“We are very happy with the confidence that MoH and NSC have in us to bring in patients in a controlled manner with stringent checkpoints to ensure their safety and that these patients do not start a new cluster,” he noted.

Opening Borders

While under lockdown, Mohd Daud said the industry needs to identify every area where it can improve, so that the country is better prepared for the arrival of new patients, adding that recovery is subject to many factors.

“The situation is very fluid and we must look at it in its entirety. We might be fully immunised and our Covid-19 numbers might reach zero, but that is not a full solution. If other countries still have cases, we might not want them to come in and vice versa.

“Opening borders depends on the safety of Malaysians, the travellers and the market condition. After the pandemic, would people be confident enough to travel again or stay in their own country for treatments?” he asked.

He encouraged Malaysians to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Even then, the standard operating procedures must still be adhered to as the success in battling Covid-19 depends on it.

Late last year, MHTC targeted for the border to open by the second half of 2021. In terms of revenue, its optimistic target was approximately RM650 million, while its pessimistic target was RM580 million.

Mohd Daud said MHTC will have to relook its target for 2021 and 2022 depending on the situation that comes into play.

On the topic of vaccine passports, he said this has been strongly advocated by the Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia, citing that it can be a way to allow foreign patients or even leisure travellers to come to Malaysia.

However, MHTC’s views are aligned with MoH.

“We may consider this later in the future depending on the findings of the World Health Organisation and the decisions made by MoH,” he stated.

Keeping the Brand Alive

Malaysia has identified the healthcare industry as one of the major contributors in the services exports.

Revenue coming from medical tourism is important to ensure that it remains a significant contributor to the country’s economic development.

Part of MHTC’s job is to make sure the Malaysian healthcare brand remains visible, to which Mohd Daud believes the brand needs to be maintained and come back stronger.

“I want our healthcare services to be a helping hand for the global community to come and seek treatment here.

“Of course, the revenue is important, but more importantly is what we can do for the global community,” he said.

In keeping the brand alive abroad, MHTC is moving to a healthier mixture of conventional and digital marketing to reach out to a greater number of people.

It also aims to give patients a seamless journey, which means improving every touchpoint through digitalisation.

“The patient’s experience can be a good testimonial promotion for us when they tell other people in their home country,” Mohd Daud said.

Beyond that, he talked about working with the industry in developing the country’s Healthcare Blueprint towards 2025.

“Infrastructure, training, service provider and enhancing skills are just some of the measures that we will be looking at in developing the blueprint, as well as identifying specific action plans for the near future and long term,” he told TMR.

He said the blueprint is still in the pipeline, and MHTC has done consultation with all the industry players and the government.

MHTC is currently working on the final stage in terms of industry engagement to get validation and further insight on where the industry is heading in the next five years.