How would you describe the dynamic between public and private healthcare provision in Malaysia today?
CHONG: We co-exist actually pretty well. In the long-term, I think there is a move towards making it a single tier and revamping our medical care. We’ve been talking about a social insurance type thing for a very long time. At the moment, the communication and dialogue between public and private sector has been good and that is mainly facilitated by the Ministry of Health itself and the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia.
In terms of policy, sometimes the public sector is not so comfortable that healthcare is not free at the point of service, which is what really ultimately happens in the public sector. So policy makers are not that convinced that citizens should have to pay out of pocket for care. Having said that, we are working together quite well. At the moment, the medical insurance market has also been growing very well. It’s a voluntary, privately held, medical insurance. Because of that growth, that supports the private hospital industry. I think the public sector would like to be sure that patients are not disadvantaged by the insurers. Currently, there is bit of an interesting dynamic because the medical insurers are under the Central Bank, but not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health; whereas the private hospitals are. We’re trying to work out a business understanding that keeps the industry expanding.
Do you see a lot of room for growth in insurance coverage?
CHONG: Previously, medical insurance used to be part of life. But now, the medical insurance product seems to be growing as a standalone. There are two things, it’s either medical insurance as medical insurance or as life or the big corporations will use a third party and insure as part of employee benefits. We see a lot of the employee benefits market here.
What are the key challenges that the country’s healthcare sector still faces? How are they being addressed?
CHONG: The challenges in the healthcare sector are pretty similar to the rest of the sectors, and its talent. It’s the hunt for good talent and retaining it. At the moment, we have a lot of new graduate nurses and new graduate pharmacists. For a facility like this, which offers quite complex procedures, we want people with a bit more experience, but so does the rest of the world. The nurse with 2, 3, 4 years’ experience is headhunted to the Middle East, Australia, US; so talent has been difficult. Even though we’ve had much better output from the colleges, we’re finding that it’s still tough. We seem to be spending more and more trying to train. We spend our money training up the newbies and then off they go to the rest of the world. That hasn't changed in the last 20 years. The other issue is talent for management. In healthcare management, there isn’t a particular MBA or Master’s so you are training on the job. There are going to be so many new hospitals coming up that you just end up poaching. It’s the same pool that goes around. So having hospitals invest in training is quite a big ask, it’s easier to pinch.
What’s Malaysia’s position as a healthcare destination relative to other regional markets, such as Thailand and Singapore?
CHONG: Currently, and this is also part of the Economic Transformation Programme for healthcare, we’re saying that we’re one of the few countries that really do speak English. A lot of our doctors are foreign trained anyway and that seems to hold a lot of water. When patients come, they look first for someone with post-graduate training in the UK, or Australia, or the US, in that order. Whether the English is of superb quality or not, we tend to be able to speak English. With that, we compete with Singapore. But, in terms of value for money, we’re heaps stronger. We don’t say we’re cheap, we certainly say we’re more affordable than Singapore. We are a little bit unusual in that the fee schedule, the amount the doctor can charge for consultations or procedures, is mandated by law. So you don’t ever have any scandals of a doctor changing 2 million Singapore dollars, which is what happened in the neighbouring country. Fees are the same whether you treat a Malaysian or a person from Libya and I think that’s good. Malaysia already ranks very highly in terms of international tourism anyway. We’re trying to leverage off that.
Healthcare will continue to grow. Our middle income market continues to be quite resilient. Economic growth has been good.
Relative to Thailand, it would be English. If you look at it, there’s also a bigger network of hospitals here that you can go to. In Thailand, it is really just Bangkok and perhaps Phuket, and you’ve got some really strong names there but that’s about it. Whereas if you come to Malaysia, all throughout Peninsular and East Malaysia you have private hospitals that can cater to you. So that reach is good and since everyone is mandated by the same law, fees are capped. The other thing that’s helped us is Air Asia. So the budget airlines have made a difference. Within a 4 hour flight time, direct access is really good. But of course, we can’t really compete with Bangkok for nightlife and the general vibrancy of Bangkok is very different than Malaysia. I think if you’re looking for a Thai experience then you’d go to Bangkok.
What is your outlook for Malaysia’s healthcare industry?
CHONG: Healthcare will continue to grow. Our middle income market continues to be quite resilient. Economic growth has been good. Bumps will be mainly in talent and that will continue to be an issue. There have been very aggressive expansion plans in the sector so we will all be fighting for experience staff and managers. For Prince Court, we’ve still got capacity, so mainly it’s to activate clinics and beds and not be too put off by the façade. It’s this big hospital and everyone thinks, because it says “Prince”, that you have to be a VIP or celebrity or royalty. So we’re saying no, we’re a hospital, it’s just that we happen to have very nice architecture and very nice doctors and very good services, so come.