Meeting nation's healthcare needs

28 April 2016


MEDICAL tourism in Malaysia is forecast to grow. More and more foreigners are flocking here to seek a variety of treatments across the cost spectrum. By all accounts, the country is an attractive destination for medical tourists. The availability of competent medical personnel and high quality facilities will continue to give Malaysia the edge over competitors. Indeed, the country generated RM588.6 million in healthcare travel revenue from January to September last year, according to the National Transformation Programme (NTP) annual report. The biggest market was Indonesia, making up 62 per cent of the healthcare revenue, followed by the Middle East (7. 4 per cent), India (three per cent), China (2.6 per cent), Japan (2.6 per cent), Australia and New Zealand (2.5 per cent) and the United Kingdom (2.5 per cent). It makes sense for Malaysia to seize the opportunity to brand and position itself as a provider of affordable, quality healthcare.

Still, the enthusiasm for bringing in cash from afar must be tempered with realism. And, the reality is many Malaysians, especially those in the rural areas, lack access to quality healthcare. As Federation of Private Medical Practitioners' Associations Malaysia president Dr Steven Chow suggests, the government must "allocate more budget for healthcare and stamp out leakages to ensure that the money is well spent". There is nothing wrong with hospitals treating patients from other countries. If it enables them to earn extra money, what's the harm? But, Malaysians should not be deprived of treatment, and this is the crux of the issue. We must give priority to healthcare for citizens over medical tourism.

The government has done a great job developing the healthcare system since 1957. According to the Health Ministry, the incidence of those becoming poor because of healthcare spending is low, and comparable to mid-level Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries such as Hungary, Sweden and Denmark. This is because of the highly-subsidised public healthcare system, which does not even recover the actual cost care delivery from users. The ministry recovers less than three per cent of actual expenditure through various fees collected for patient care and other fees such as rental of staff quarters and hostels, and licensing fees. Yet, within this highly-subsidised public facility structure there are those who do not or cannot pay their fees. Those who cannot pay are referred to medical social officers for assessment of fee waiver and assistance from the health fund. There are also Malaysians who do not settle their bills, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. But, the bulk of defaulters are foreigners, many of whom could have entered the country specifically to access the public healthcare system.

These limitations notwithstanding, the ministry must brace itself for the challenges of an expanding ageing population, high prevalence of non-communicable diseases, increasing and expensive medical technology as well as unexpected environmental and communicable threats to health — all the more reason for ensuring the well-being of all Malaysians and not solely for profit-making.

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