The World's New Medical Tourism Paradise

The World's New Medical Tourism Paradise

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Rehab sounds better on the white sandy beaches of Malaysia. 

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Kevin Wyatt stretched out on sparkling white sheets, gazing at the palm trees outside his room in sunny Kuala Lumpur. After a long international flight, Wyatt, an avid cyclist from South Carolina, was eager to roam the sprawling city’s Chinatown and chow down on steaming nasi lemak during a 13-day stay in Malaysia’s glitzy capital. But first there was a bit of business to attend to: His spotless suite was actually an operating room, his comfy bed a gurney. The first stop on his tourist itinerary in this tropical locale was a hospital, to go under the knife for a replacement knee. The cost: $5,000 less than he would have paid at home, even including airfare and wellness-resort stays.

Wyatt is just one of thousands of surgery-seeking vacationers who have packed their bags for Malaysia in recent years. Medical tourism is a booming business in the small Southeast Asian country of space-age skyscrapers and six-story shopping malls. In the last 10 years, as health care costs have risen and the world’s population has grown older, Malaysia’s industry has swelled tenfold to $180 million as people from across the globe have flocked there to get a piece of the country’s cheap, quality health care. According to the International Medical Travel Journal, it’s the top medical travel “destination of the year,” and the industry in Malaysia is forecast to grow by 15 percent annually. It’s just a slice of the growing global medical tourism pie that’s worth up to $55 billion, with 11 million cross-border patients worldwide, according to Patients Beyond Borders. 

“It’s not about cutting corners. It’s not about compromising. It’s not about shortchanging anyone.”

That’s thanks to the country’s rock-bottom property and real estate prices, English-speaking physicians and plethora of medical-device manufacturers. Singapore and Thailand, once thriving medical havens for budget-conscious patients, are struggling to compete due to rising prices and lagging infrastructure. Moreover, as Ara Damansara Medical Centre CEO Sue Lee explains, Malaysia is banking on the region’s growing gray tsunami — by 2050, the number of people 60 and older will triple in Southeast Asia. “Anti-aging treatments and fix-me-ups,” like hip replacements, cosmetic surgeries and dental work, are in high demand from the cash-strapped elderly, says Sherene Azli, the CEO of Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council. 

For visitors, it’s like booking an all-inclusive vacation package, with the added bonus of a face-lift or new dentures. The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council offers a $700 deal for a city tour, a four-night hotel stay at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur and an executive health screening. “It’s an end-to-end service,” explains Azli. In Wyatt’s case, his medical journey in 2013 included a private limousine that whisked him to the airport, a stay for him and his wife at the Club Saujana Resort and an executive suite hospital room that offered a garden balcony with twice-a-day tea service. There are even designated lounges and ambulance bays for medical tourists at the international airports in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Malaysia is a “hidden [health care] gem” that delivers “peace of mind,” says Azli.

It can be hard to keep anxiety at bay, though, when you’re undergoing a procedure thousands of miles away from home, says Keith Pollard, a medical tourism maven in London who publishes the International Medical Travel Journal. Going abroad for medical treatment is not a lighthearted decision for most patients, he says; most actually have no other option — it’s a “last resort.” “The biggest barrier is fear of the unknown, fear of something going wrong, fear that they won’t understand me,” he says. Nobody wants poorly trained doctors who haphazardly slice and dice in a developing country. When treatment turns sour, medical malpractice suits are hard to navigate in foreign lands.

But take a chill pill, says Azli: “It’s not about cutting corners. It’s not about compromising. It’s not about shortchanging anyone.” Unlike in many other established medical tourism destinations, the Malaysian government works hand in hand with the country’s medical sector to keep things on the up and up. It has tax breaks for hospitals to upgrade their equipment, relaxed visa restrictions for inbound medical tourists and regulations that standardize the costs and quality of treatments across its hospitals. The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council works under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, which collaborates with hotels, clinics, hospitals, insurance companies, airlines and all the other players in the medical tourism field. This public-private partnership is key to emerging medical tourism industries, since making money and healing people don’t aways coincide. Malaysia, Azli says, is “cautious to not commoditize” its health care as other countries have done. 

While Malaysia’s model is no cure-all for a growing affordable health care crisis, other nations ought to take note, say health care professionals. Overseas treatments could be covered by more health insurance plans in the next few years, and countries like Malaysia want to make it easier to access cheap, top-notch health care, with the added perk of sipping mimosas beachside while recovering from surgery. One year after getting his new knee, Kevin Wyatt says, he picked up a tennis racket for the first time in nine years. “Three sets later,” he recalls proudly, he was tired, “but no worse for the wear.”