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How vaccine passports can help revive medical tourism in Malaysia

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Sinovac and health passes can restore travel to the Southeast Asian nation, reveals Dr Kuljit Singh, President, Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia.

At a time of prolonged uncertainty, the prospect of revived medical travel in Asia is dividing opinion.

In a recent Omnia Health survey of 1,600 healthcare respondents worldwide, the Voice of the Healthcare Industry Market Outlook 2021, confidence in medical tourism returning over the next 12 months is shown to be weaker in Asia (18 percent) compared to any other region worldwide.

By contrast, 2021 research from Polaris Market Research shows that Asia-Pacific, which had generated the highest revenue in the medical tourism market in 2019, is expected to be the leading region globally. This is attributed to increased demand, accessibility of healthcare facilities, and an increased number of medical facilities for international patients.

Omnia Health Insights caught up with Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh, President, Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia for clarity, and specifically an update on the medical travel situation in Malaysia, a key market for medical tourism in Southeast Asia.

In June 2020, Dr Kuljit revealed that medical tourism in Malaysia had been reduced to zero because of the pandemic. 12 months on the situation has little improved. Patients are beginning to seek treatment in their own country rather than travel overseas, with one exception: emergency medical evacuation, with patients arriving on chartered executive jets while still having to follow the mandatory quarantine of two weeks to 21 days.

Telemedicine is not a viable alternative to medical travel either: Dr Kuljit believes it is suitable only for maintaining communication between a physician and the patients, while medical tourism instead offers multiple advantages – examinations, imaging, monitoring and other benefits to the patient.   

The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), a government office which promotes Malaysian healthcare globally, is looking therefore to identify opportunities to bring medical tourists back to Malaysia, where borders remain closed to visitors.

This is likely to remain challenging owing to the high number of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia – at the time of writing they are numbering more than 7,000 daily, having rocketed since April 2021. Vaccinations are however being ramped up in the country through mega vaccination centres (“PPV”) and private hospitals, while there are also discussions regarding introducing drive-throughs and mobile vaccination units to rural parts.

Approximately 3.5 million doses have been administered to date (as of 5 June), including first and second, and assuming that there are no new variants, the Malaysian government is targeting to complete the vaccination programme across the nation by October 2021 at the earliest.

Vaccine passports

With herd immunity worldwide likely to take “years”, Dr Kuljit suggested that the only credible solution for the reopening of international borders and resumption of tourism is the digital ‘vaccine passport’, or mobile health pass, that would in theory allow vaccinated travellers entry into Malaysia.

Yet a digital passport is not without its challenges.

A proper vaccine passport will require extensive verification through blockchain technology or similar, unequivocally proving that the holder has been vaccinated against COVID-19, as fraud in test results is rampant in many parts of the world. This is on top of what a conventional passport offers, that is verifying the nationality of the holder for international travel. Any failure will invite problems.

Another issue is that, with the recent resurgence of COVID-19 in Malaysia, decision-makers are now firmly focused on the nationwide vaccine rollout, resulting in discussions on vaccine passports falling by the wayside.

Third, not all vaccines are recognised equally - though there is some encouragement for ASEAN countries. Sinovac, a Chinese vaccine now approved by the WHO, is administered in Thailand and Indonesia, and will also be provided in Malaysia alongside Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca.

Post-pandemic medical travel

Looking further ahead to a time when the pandemic is brought under control worldwide, within the next two years in Dr Kuljit’s estimation, some caution will likely remain both on the part of the caregiver and patient.

Hospitals may have to adopt concrete steps to reassure patients that they are safe and will furthermore have to ready themselves – along with the wider system - for the emergence of any other pandemic.

On the part of patients, there will be subtle lifestyle changes – mask-wearing and regular handwashing for example are likely to continue in some form.

Despite this, international patients will be eager to return to Malaysia, owing to the country’s long track record in medical tourism and positive perceptions around value and quality.

If anything, patients and tourists alike may rush in at once, Dr Kuljit added, pointing to the surge of domestic visitors to popular tourism destinations Langkawi and Penang in the month or two after the first COVID-19 wave in Malaysia when cases had come down initially. This is something that the industry would need to consider when welcoming a return to normal.

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