Asia attracts over 1.3m visitors annually for medical tourism and is expected to generate more than $4bn a year in revenues by 2012. Within five years, Malaysia alone is expected to bring in $590m per annum in medical tourism receipts.
While Malaysia is still playing catch up to countries such as Singapore, Thailand and India in the number of people visiting for medical procedures, authorities believe Malaysia can provide state-of-the-art facilities at affordable prices to compete in this growing field.
Currently there are over 100 private hospitals in the country, a significant number given that the first such facilities opened in 1985. The country's tourism development and environment committee began officially recording the number of medical tourist arrivals into the country in 2005. According to the committee, in 2006 there were 110,000 foreign patients seeking treatment in Malaysia, a 10% increase on the previous year.
While this figure lags behind neighbouring Thailand (400,000) and Singapore (370,000), it is a notable achievement considering that both these countries have been aggressively promoting their medical facilities overseas for nearly two decades.
Dr Jacob Thomas, group medical advisor for Subang Jaya Medical Centre (SJMC), a private hospital located outside Kuala Lumpur, told OBG that unlike Singapore, which has been marketing its healthcare services to visitors, "In Malaysia we had not marketed our services in the past. SJMC today is receiving referrals from the UK on a weekly basis. The momentum is starting."
Medical tourism is classified into two general categories: critical services, such as heart surgery, and elective procedures, such as cosmetic surgery. Traditionally Singapore, with a reputation for hi-quality medical facilities offering specialised and complex treatment, holds the lead in the first category. Meanwhile Thailand, with a niche reputation in cosmetic surgery, leads the way in the second.
One area where growth has been most evident is in visitors from the US. Medical costs for surgery there are beginning to drive the business of surgery overseas. Cost savings range from 25% to 80% for many procedures. For example, elective surgeries in Asia such as a rhinoplasty cost a quarter of what they would in the US while critical procedures, such as heart surgery, are as low as $7000 compared to the $50,000 to $125,000 they would cost in the US. Overall, even when one includes airfare and the cost of a luxury hotel to rest and recuperate, the entire process will typically come out to 50% of what it would cost in the US.
The long waiting periods for surgery in countries that practice socialised medicine such as Canada and the UK also add to the momentum of a growing worldwide medical business.
Many hospitals provide hotel-like amenities, including personal assistants for post-hospital recovery, overnight in-hospital facilities for travel companions and occasionally even airfare incentives.
In terms of quality, all private medical centres in Malaysia must be approved and licensed by the ministry of health and have internationally recognised accreditation standards.
Another factor is that most Malaysian doctors originally studied and trained in the US, UK or Australia meaning many doctors speak English and are able to converse in Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, thus catering to visitors from Indonesia, China and India.
Thomas told OBG, "Prior to  people used to have to go to the UK or Australia for specialised care. Today, there is little reason to refer a patient outside of Malaysia and quite the opposite, people are being referred to Malaysia for nearly every possible procedure needed."
While the cost and quality of medical care are important considerations, the 'tourism' element of this niche sector is equally important, especially when it comes to elective procedures. The majority of Malaysia's private healthcare facilities are located in or near Malaysia's prime tourist locations. Many patients seek relaxation and activities to occupy themselves during the one- to two-week recuperation period. The average daily expenditures of someone visiting for a medical procedure is more than double that of the average tourist at $362 a day compared to $144.
In addition to the growing number of surgery options that hospitals offer, many travel agencies have developed specialised packages, including a broad choice of recuperation and leisure activities, which can be integrated with the healthcare options for travellers and their families.
While Malaysia boasts the facilities and value proposition to cater to this growing industry, many argue that what is lacking is a centralised coordinating body to position and brand the country abroad. The Malaysian Association of Private Hospitals joins other agencies, such as the tourism authority and the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority, on road shows and trade missions. However, there is a call for the ministry of health to take on the branding of medical tourism, and it has recently established a branch to explore taking on this role.