This weekend, the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council, an organisation set up by the Malaysian Ministry of Health to promote Malaysia as – in the words of its website – “a unique destination for world-class healthcare services”, launched a year-long partnership with a local tourism agency. The council also held its first Myanmar Sales Mission & Exhibition in Myanmar Plaza on June 17 and 18.
Though the number of Myanmar patients travelling to Malaysia has increased since the country started offering services, the total still lags far behind those travelling to Thailand and Singapore.
Malaysia has a disadvantage over the other two ASEAN members, which have signed visa exemption MoUs with Myanmar’s government. Thailand’s visa exemption agreement has already been implemented while Myanmar citizens will be able to travel freely to Singapore from December. Malaysia is the only ASEAN country that has not signed a visa exemption agreement with Myanmar.
Mohd Haniff Abd Rahman, Malaysian ambassador to Myanmar, said his government is still reviewing visa requirements for Myanmar citizens and possibilities for the future.
Numbers of Myanmar medical tourists to Malaysia have risen slowly, according to Vincent Gool, the regional director for market development of the travel council.
“According to MHTC figures, in 2015, 12,000 Myanmar patients came to Malaysia compared to 10,000 in 2014,” he said.
“The biggest challenge we have is awareness. People do not know about Malaysia. I think everybody knows about [medical tourism in] Thailand, Singapore and India, but not Malaysia since we started late. In 2012 we were where Thailand and Singapore were 20 years ago.”
Myanmar’s healthcare system was long-neglected under the former military government and now faces a number of challenges for delivering effective and affordable care. Patients say central hospitals lack basic supplies, medication and equipment and many forms of treatment continue to be cost-prohibitive.
Dr Mei Mei Ko, who is chief editor of the medical magazine Ziwaka, said medical tourism has increasingly attracted patients over the last 15 years.
She said patients in Myanmar can expect to spend between K5000 and K7000 for just a few minutes with a specialist, but are willing to spend significantly more, in some cases upward of K5 million (US$5128), for treatment in foreign hospitals.
“We need to change our healthcare system to match [the needs of] our patients,” she said.