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Sherene Azli

MALAYSIA - Health & Education

Healthy Destination

CEO, Malaysia Health Travel Council (MHTC)


Sherene Azli spearheads the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), an agency under the Ministry of Health. She began her career as a research manager within Irish Telecommunications Investment plc, Dublin. She then returned to Malaysia to embark on a 16-year service with Telekom Malaysia, becoming Vice President of Group Marketing and then Vice President of Strategy and Business Development. She then moved onto the Malaysian Diaspora Outreach Unit with Talent Corporation Malaysia, becoming General Manager. She has a master’s degree from the University of Durham.

"Our value proposition in Malaysia is threefold: world-class quality, real time accessibility, and affordability."

Do you anticipate growth to continue to come from Indonesia or are you also tapping into new markets?

In becoming a regional destination, we cannot rely on just one country, despite the fact that typically about 60% of all medical travellers come from Indonesia. Indonesia has itself embarked on a path for national health insurance and we should therefore grow other markets such as the Middle East and CIS countries, as well as China, Bangladesh, Australia, and New Zealand. In each of these countries, we focus on offering niche treatments whereas in Indonesia we offer all treatments. Singapore is another country where we believe we can grow, as medical costs there are sky high. Singaporeans can utilize their Medisave in Malaysia, and are already doing so in hospitals like Regency and the IHH group of hospitals (Pantai and Gleneagles hospitals). For treatments that are not covered by Medisave, costs remain a push factor. On top of that we have medical travellers from the UK, Japan, Korea, India, and the US; however, these are often expats working in the region. We have offices abroad in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Dhaka, Jakarta, Hong Kong, and Yangon and we are also looking to set up in the Middle East, most likely in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. In healthcare, trust is important and therefore our physical presence overseas is necessary. In terms of numbers, we had 850,000 medical travellers last year, and we target 1 million for 2016. Total revenue in 2015 was more than MYR900 million, and for 2016, we target MYR1.3 billion. We want to drive the industry forward and aim high to push our boundaries.

Can you tell us more about halal treatment, a new trend in medical tourism that is targeted at patients from the Gulf?

Our value proposition in Malaysia is threefold: world-class quality, real time accessibility, and affordability. In addition, we have distinctive propositions that consider shared cultural values. Halal treatment is one such proposition, and fits into our tagline “quality care for your peace of mind.” Food is the main issue here; however, it also entails halal medicine and halal service. All our hospitals focus on providing halal services, which include halal dietary provisions, halal services and halal medical products.

How will the medical corridors Penang, Johor, and Malacca drive the industry forward?

Penang has been a destination for medical travellers for many decades and is ahead in terms of promotion. The state is responsible for 50 to 60% of the total number of medical travellers coming into Malaysia; half of the patients in Penang hospitals are medical tourists. Penang has the whole ecosystem in place: excellent hospitals, an end-to-end service, and an active medical tourism association. We can learn from Penang and want to create similar hubs in other states. Malacca has experience with tourism influx. There is the Mahkota Medical Centre, which has been attracting medical travellers for some years. Malacca also has The Orchard, a unique healing hotel that provides preventive and recuperative healthcare and wellness treatments. These elements together give Malacca a strong value proposition for medical tourism. Johor Bahru is also a natural destination because of its proximity to Singapore and Indonesia. Our challenge in Johor was that we did not have hospitals with capacity previously. In the recent years, we have seen significant developments there, particularly with the opening of Gleneagles Medini and the growth of the Regency and KPJ hospitals. In general, when we choose areas to promote, we look at availability, existing hospitals and their capacity, and the overall tourism infrastructure. Our next destination would be Sabah and Sarawak, starting with Kota Kinabalu, where there is a strong appeal from China, Australia, and New Zealand.

What does the MHTC offer its members?

Our core function is promoting and facilitating medical travel in Malaysia. We are the point of contact for medical travellers selecting a destination. We only work with ISQUA-accredited hospitals and have in-depth knowledge of the expertise of our members on which we can advise objectively. Currently, we have 74 member facilities, of which we have selected 22 elite members. These facilities have the highest quality healthcare, are willing to invest in promotional activities, and often have a certain niche treatment to offer. We then promote accordingly. For example, Tropicana has a 66% success rate in IVF treatments compared to the world average of 50%. European countries have great healthcare; however, there we focus on treatments that are not covered by insurance or those with long waiting lists.

You recently signed an agreement with Malaysian Airlines; what does this initiative entail?

It is important to deliver end-to-end services for medical travellers and this includes as little transits as possible. We are exploring partnerships with providers along our value chain, which includes airlines as well as taxi services providers, like Uber and GrabCar. We believe Malaysia Airlines is a great fit as it is the national airline and also provides the Malaysian hospitality on which we pride ourselves. Within the agreement with Malaysia Airlines, we can offer preferential rates for medical travellers, have concierges ready at KLIA who wait for patients at the aerobridge, and arrange for patients to wait in transit lounges in several airports. We are also in talks with travel agencies to develop package deals that include dental treatment, city tour, and a few nights at five-star hotels. We have also signed an agreement with AirAsia for its excellent connectivity within the region, e.g. China, including direct flights into Penang from key major travel hubs in Asia. In addition, we are currently running a campaign called “Malaysia Loves You,” bearing the tagline “Experience Malaysia Healthcare, embrace Malaysian hospitality,” where we will give lucky winners and opportunity to experience world-class Malaysian healthcare and travel services for themselves. The grand prize for this campaign includes a full Malaysia Healthcare experience package that will feature top services from MHTC industry partners, including fully-sponsored round-trip flight tickets and a 5-day-4-night health holiday at one of Malaysia’s leading health and wellness resorts for two.

Is it difficult for medical centers in Malaysia to retain qualified staff?

It is a natural movement of talent, and also means that medical staff from Malaysia are internationally recognized. Singapore has always been the traditional destination, where many of our Malaysian doctors practice. The industry is growing fast and creating a pull factor for medical staff, practitioners, and doctors. In Malaysia, we spend about 4.6% of our GDP—2.2% private and 2.4% public—on healthcare, and that is great. Ultimately, movement of talent is a fact of life, particularly in healthy economies, and as part of that spirit of competitiveness, Malaysia invests heavily in nurturing our domestic talent to ensure a sustainable supply of highly qualified healthcare professionals. As it stands, we have plenty of doctors; what we need are more specialists and as such, have implemented programs to re-attract Malaysians who went abroad, to some success.

What is your opinion of the growth of the medical equipment industry?

Medical equipment is indeed one of the fastest-growing industries in Malaysia. Both medical devices and consumables, such as rubber gloves, are major contributors to the sustainability of the health sector at large. The fact that these goods are produced locally has a spillover effect in that our medical centers do not need to import them, which supports our affordability factor. The industry is not under our mandate; however, when we travel abroad to promote our healthcare, we often discover potential new markets and collaborations for this industry.

What are your goals for this year?

We continue to drive promotion to become the number one medical travel destination in the region. The immediate objective here is to create awareness. We have been a hidden gem for too long and need to become more vocal about our expertise. One of the ways of doing this is to further enhance our digital marketing strategy. We want to become the top-of-mind medical travel destination by 2020. Another objective is international engagement. We want to increase our global presence in all of our target markets. We want not just “touch and go” engagement, but to promote ourselves and be more constantly visible. In countries like Bangladesh, we typically target high-end treatments; at the same time, we want to engage in CSR programs and support local hospitals with expertise and manpower. Such engagements help us build trust. Conversion is our ultimate objective. By 2020, we want total revenues of MYR4 billion in the sector as a whole, including the wellness and preventative healthcare, alternative healthcare, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). We seek to grow the whole ecosystem, encompassing all peripheral industries and supporting services.



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