KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Only 16 foreigners have been allowed into Malaysia to seek medical treatment since the government reopened the medical tourism sector last month, the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) said on Tuesday (Aug 18).
MHTC chief executive officer Sherene Azli said that 250 foreigners had made "serious inquiries" about seeking treatment in the country, but fewer than 10 per cent of the number were allowed in due to stringent healthcare protocols in place amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The arrival of foreign citizens seeking medical help in Malaysia drew the public's attention following the entry of three Indonesians into Penang for medical care.
Their arrivals caused anger on social media, with Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow later saying it would temporarily halt medical tourism flights due to a recent flare-up of Covid-19 cases in the state.
MHTC's Ms Sherene told a new briefing on Tuesday: "We are also very concerned about our own well-being, and at the same time, we are trying to balance it with the humanitarian requirements of our patients who are desperately seeking treatment."
She said of the MHTC's 70-member hospitals, only 15 were ready to receive foreign patients because of Malaysia's stringent health protocols.
Ms Sherene said while the council understood the Penang government's concerns, it stood by the standard operating procedures approved by the federal government.
She said moving forward, they would work together with state governments to continue putting national safety in the foreground while adhering to the federal government's direction.
She added that the three Indonesians patients were accompanied by two carers, making it a total of five who boarded a chartered flight on an Airbus A320 plane to Penang.
Two were seeking treatment for cancer, while the other was a paediatric cardiology case.
They had arrived at the Penang International Airport last Friday.
Only one hospital in Penang is taking in foreign patients at the moment, said Ms Sherene.
Malaysia last year welcomed 1.3 million healthcare travellers, making the country the top healthcare travel destination in the world by volume. More than half of the medical tourists sought treatment in Penang.
In June, Malaysia's National Security Council (NSC) had decided that foreign patients could seek treatment in the country with a mandatory 14-day quarantine in the hospital room.
Each may be accompanied by a guardian and both must be certified Covid-19 negative before boarding the plane to Malaysia.
Upon arrival, they must be immediately taken to the private hospital of their choosing for treatment.
They would also have to undergo another two Covid-19 tests - upon arrival at the hospital and on the 13th day of quarantine.
The NSC subsequently decided that only foreign medical evacuees - patients with life-threatening conditions - could come to Malaysia for treatment in the initial phase.
They have to enter Malaysia via medical evacuation or via a chartered flight.
More than half of Malaysia's medical tourists who visit annually for treatment are Indonesians.