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Main » 2009 » November » 30 » Medical Tourism: ‘KL Must Stop Brain Drain’
Medical Tourism: ‘KL Must Stop Brain Drain’

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 19 — In order to expand medical tourism, "irritants” impeding its growth must be removed and concrete measures taken to stem the brain drain of highly skilled doctors, a senior minister has acknowledged.

The establishment of the Malaysia Health Travel Council — helmed by Ooi Say Chuan, the former deputy secretary-general of the Trade Ministry — seeks to advance the sector which earned an estimated RM400 million last year, by acting as a one-stop centre and serving as a platform for the private sector and government to iron out problems.

"With medical tourism, we cannot go wrong as we have very good doctors,” Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop said at a seminar on healthcare tourism here yesterday.

"Unfortunately some of our doctors are attracted to neighbouring countries to work, but we will get them back. We must look at what the irritants are and remove them,” he added, noting these could include mutual recognition of overseas accreditation and certification.

His comments on addressing the issues driving away skilled professionals echoes recent comments by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that more needs to be done to reverse the serious brain drain if Malaysia hopes to have the talent to innovate so that the country can transform into a high-income economy.

To promote medical tourism, the income tax exemption on the value of increased exports was raised to 100 per cent from 50 per cent in the last budget, Nor Mohamed said, adding more incentives would be revealed later.

Despite having the ingredients to be a big player in the booming sector, estimated to be worth US$40 billion (RM140 billion) globally, Malaysia has been slow to leverage on the advantages, a number of participants lamented, pointing to the lack of focus over the past decade even though the potential had already been identified after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

The various initiatives submitted had gotten nowhere in the tangle of government agencies and, as a result, "we have muddled our way through”, one participant observed.

Another noted the renewed focus on healthcare and medical tourism notwithstanding, Malaysia needs to find its niche to stand out in the region against more established markets such as India, Singapore and Thailand.

Over the past decade, the brain drain has also intensified and in the medical line, Malaysia now faces a dire shortage of doctors — especially specialists — in public hospitals. At the same time, doctors in private practice are drawn to better-equipped hospitals and fatter salaries and prospects overseas, many of them moving over to Singapore.

However, some entrepreneurial doctors have also been quick to exploit the demand for private healthcare and medical tourism, and according to Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia (APHM) president Jacob Thomas, a number have returned, in part due to improving facilities.

The APHM, however, does not have statistics on the numbers of Malaysian doctors practising overseas or those that have returned.

Ooi told participants they ought to capitalise on the new "phenomena” of patients from developed nations travelling to less-developed ones for medical procedures.

A medical procedure in Malaysia would cost about one-tenth of that in the United States, he said, and provided the example of a heart by-pass, which costs US$9,000 locally versus US$11,000 in Thailand and US$18,500 in Singapore.

Given the sector was worth only RM59 million in 2003 and about RM400 million now — indicative figures only because not all hospitals give details — the potential is vast, with Penang and Malacca the leading states in the country. — Business Times Singapore

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