Malaysia, for example, is eyeing the medical tourism sector which is inherent with considerable revenue-generating potential as patients in developed western countries, particularly in the United States (US), are looking for good quality but low-cost sites which offer not only medical services but also have attractive tourism attributes.
"As a corporatised agency funded by the Malaysian Government, we are promoting healthcare travel and are positioning Malaysia as a preferred healthcare destination," explained Kuala Lumpur-based Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) chief executive, Dr Mary Wong, in an interview with BERNAMA at the ongoing three-day New York Times Travel Show (NYTTS).
At the NYTTS, she presented at a seminar, a book titled 'Patients Beyond Borders' by Josef Woodmann, considered a valuable source of information about facilities along with important contacts for tests/treatment, etc., available in Malaysia.
Wong, whose organisation has participated in a number of international travel and tourism shows worldwide, in conjunction with Tourism Malaysia, believes the medical travel industry is "bound to grow tremendously" because of rising healthcare costs, heightened health awareness and better information available in developed countries about treatment options.
"Many patients in western countries have to wait before they are even examined by the medical care facilities. As you can imagine, this can be fatal if there is any terminal illness involved. We can provide good, almost immediate care. We have drastically cut down waiting time for patients," she said.
Although Malaysia has a well-developed healthcare infrastructure, supported by state-of-the-art equipment, many experts in the US often question the availability of sufficient number of medical doctors and other experts.
"We have adequate number of doctors to support our healthcare system. Indeed, we have 5,000 new well-trained medical graduates each year. Besides, our medical force gets an additional 1,000 specialised medical experts each year. Indeed, we are trying to target one doctor for a population of 400 people," she maintained.
Wong said healthcare tourism would generate "substantial contribution" for Malaysia's economy, accounting for some RM594 million, in terms of revenue in 2012.
"In 2013, the revenue is estimated to reach RM688 million, according to tentative estimates," she said.
For the health-conscious traveller, Malaysia offers a unique combination of good quality, low-cost healthcare and an attractive tourist destination, Wong observed. While visiting Malaysia, the traveller can also undergo medical check and use facilities involving preventive wellness, spas, cosmetic and dental surgery, etc.
While Singapore may have built a reputation for itself as a medical tourist destination, it is rapidly losing this advantage because of rising costs and faces fierce competition from other countries, including Malaysia, thanks to their much-lower medical and hospitalisation costs.
Five-star hotels in Malaysia are also much cheaper.
Wong said that as an English-speaking country, Malaysia offered the ease of direct communication between patients and attending doctors and medical staff at hospitals.
"The traveller should have no problem sharing his or her concerns with doctors and healthcare staff. Malaysian hospitals also offer a combination of Eastern and Western medicine," she noted.
Asked why Malaysia was 'Johnny-come-lately' in the medical tourism sector, she said her organisation, which was formed only a few years ago, had aggressively pushed for medical tourism in 2011.
"But because of our unique advantages, both governments and patients in developed countries will, invariably, appreciate our cost and other advantages," she said.
The top 10 foreign nationalities which visited Malaysia in 2012 for medical treatment were Indonesia (375,499), India (22,350), Japan (17,775), China (15,407), United Kingdom (13,366), US (12,158), Libya (11,872), Bangladesh (11,594), Australia (10,369) and Nepal (10,031).
The popular treatments sought in Malaysia are cardiology, oncology, orthopaedic, obstetrics and gynaecology, urology, otolaryngology, gastroenterology, reconstructive surgery, health screening and second opinion.
Tourism Malaysia's New York office, led by its vice-president, Ahmad Johanif Mohd Ali, had a busy Saturday at the NYTTS as hordes of American visitors descended on the show venue to witness the various cultural and culinary presentations made by the entire world vying to get a slice of the American tourism market.
He told BERNAMA there was "great interest" amongst American tourists for Malaysia, based on the large turnout of inquisitive visitors who not only came to witness the colourful Malaysian cultural dances at the stage but also sought information, brochures and other materials at the Malaysia stand.
By Manik Mehta