Penang island and state (Malaysia) is already a very established travel destination and business centre – for all the good reasons with its very successful manufacturing hub and FDI, as well as comprehensive attractions for tourists, including beaches and two UNESCO sites (with the historic Georgetown at its core)! Based on this platform, Penang is successfully also – with its comprehensive services, including many high quality hospitals –positioning itself as a destination for medical tourism. It is now also eyeing westerners in Asia and holiday-makers for this.
Prior to the Covid border closure Penang recorded nearly half a million medical tourists (most of them from Indonesia), and this has been bouncing back strong, along with other very encouraging signs for the state, that Penang Centre of Medical Tourism, P.Med, the state body in charge of the promotion, tells ScandAsia about.
P.Med’s Advisor and State Minister for tourism, is Mr YB Wong. He informs that more hotels are now opening, than that closed down, and many hospitals are expanding.
“I think medical tourism is growing very strongly, and we have increasingly seen resumption of direct flights.”
Health tourism and hospitality comes second only to the industrial sector in importance, informs the minister. He outlines the factors that make the conditions conducive to offering medical services for international visitors – including some obvious ones, such as the tropical weather. The currency situation has also made conditions favourable recently.
“It’s actually an advantage because the other destinations and regions are expensive. People look around for something more affordable. And, most importantly, our medical tourism doctors are trained in the Commonwealth Countries i.e. Malaysia, Singapore, the U.K, Australia, so they maintain high standards, along with well-trained supporting staff. This makes our medical care comparatively affordable, when benchmarking with other regions,” says Mr Wong.
He also highlights the language proficiency, not least in English, paired with a high service level. “All things combined give us a competitive edge in this region!”
One of P.MED’s member hospitals, Sunway Medical Centre Penang, agrees about the affordability.
”Our fees are actually regulated by our ministry and relatively, when we comparing, I think the costs for Malaysian healthcare is only a fraction of what it amounts to in many other countries,” says Sunway’s CEO, Stephanie Lee Wai Fern. “Therefore, international visitors can enter into Malaysia and finance other things like their hotel stay, shopping and holidays by saving on their medical costs.”
An important factor is also accessibility: many cities and countries are within one to four hours flight distance from Penang. ”There are direct flight to reach here very conveniently and then you do a medical check-up, consult your doctor, and also spend a few days here. Then you repeat that trip every year,” says Mr Wong, informing that many patients come for repetitive consultations regarding common issues (hypertension, diabetes etc.).
Having built up such a strong customer base from Indonesia (Malay-speaking and at short travel distance), other nationalities in the region are now also targets. For instance, direct flights from Xiamen connect Penang to no less than 60 Chinese cities! And via Dubai and Qatar visitors from the west can also reach the island state.
Penang is also a renowned melting pot for cuisines and many come specifically for its famous hawker food, ‘Nyonya’ restaurants etc. The environment is also suited for rejuvenation and convalescence.
“Westerners want to explore the food of the orient, the beaches, nature and the Unesco sites. All things combined give Penang its special attraction,” thinks YB Wong.
Health screening packages are popular, while Penang can offer a wide range of services, including surgical treatments, such as orthopaedics, cardiovascular and plastic and reconstructive restoration.
The Sunway hospital also points out that getting an appointment to see as specialist is very straightforward.
”Malaysia’s healthcare allows patients to head straight into specialist care, so that’s another of the advantages also for medical tourists,” says its CEO.
As a new private hospital based on the mainland, Sunway has clearly prepared to offer customers also from elsewhere its services. This can start with pre-arrival teleconsultancy; enabling them to really find out in advance what it will be like in a hospital in Penang.
”From when someone arrives to the point when a hip or knee replacement gets done can be a matter of only two to three days, with post treatment recovery for another week or two, so literally we’ll need less than two weeks before the patient can fly back home.”
”Elective procedures are essential for the health tourism market, and where we don’t have much queue. And with our line-up of our doctors we are actually very comprehensive,” she adds. ”We are more than ready to able to serve the larger community as well as the international market.”
Facilitating foreigners is partly enabled thanks to the relatively small local population, which in turn also benefits through economy at scale: “The medical technology that we deploy for the locals can actually be further enhanced by the international market as well,” says the CEO.
”We actually have ventured into robotic surgery and are also very focused on certain types of cancer treatment, which not only benefits locals but is also able to serve regional patients,” she adds.
Sunway is an example of a player understanding medical tourism very well, in serving its customers with much more than treatments – as a one-stop shop. Next door it has a Sunway hotel and also a shopping mall nearby, to be, explains Stephanie, ”part and parcel of the patient journey” during convalescence.
”We do see that they need of a lot more than medical treatment alone, so we are gradually building up our facilitation. P.Med has also locked in and collaborates with many supporting services to promote Penang as a health travel destination.”
Aside transporting its customers to Georgetown and the island for recreation Sunway also wants to promote what the surrounding mainland has to offer, including seafood dining, mountain sceneries and trips to Ipoh.
”There are a lot of amenities and infrastructure on the island itself that also benefits expats to retire there. I’d say the mainland is still unexplored but we are hopeful that it can be developed further, to also drive and support the need of retirees in the future, and as the island gets increasingly saturated.”
The ageing population in many countries is also in focus for Sunway in offering – among its comprehensive specialist services – what is typically needed more by retirees: geriatric healthcare.
“With more elderly people we’ll see increased needs. Age is just a number but there may be an increase of health issues due to lifestyle habits. They will have more chronic diseases, so the patient itself will be more complex because of all these concurrent diseases,” explains Sunway’s geriatrician, Dr. Low Chung Min.
“Our focus is always on their functionality, and bringing patients back to their previous level upon recovery. Following on that is the need to have rehabilitation services and even community care – with doctors, nurses, and therapists. They need a whole continuum of health care services from community care to acute services. Some may also need long term care because they are not able to take care of themselves at home. We need to aim for that as the world is aging.”
For more info go to: Penang Centre of Medical Tourism