GEORGE TOWN, July 30 — The boom in Penang’s medical tourism is not only filling up private hospitals but has spilled over into the state’s general hospital and putting a greater strain on its overworked government medical practitioners.

Private hospitals in the state are referring some of their foreign patients to the Penang Hospital for treatment due to a lack of specialists in certain fields and this is stretching the government hospital’s resources even thinner, said state health executive councillor Dr Afif Bahardin.

“It is hard for them to deal with this. If there’s an emergency between two patients, one is local and one is foreign, which one should they save first?” he asked.

A government hospital’s main purpose is to provide subsidised healthcare to Malaysians, but with foreigners being increasing referred to it, locals will have to “fight” for an appointment with a specialist or for bed space in the wards.


Penang received more than 300,000 medical tourists in 2011 and the state accounted for 60 per cent of the total foreign medical tourists to Malaysia in the same year.

“The Penang Hospital keeps receiving referral cases of foreign patients from private hospitals, sometimes to see a specialist which the private hospital does not have,” Dr Afif said.

This issue is also due to a shortage of specialists in various sub-sectors of the medical field.


“There are specialists only available in Penang Hospital in the whole state such as the rheumatologist and the nuclear medicine specialist and there are specialists like a cochlear implant specialist only available at a private hospital here in the northern region so not all hospitals have all specialists in all fields,” he said.

A shortage in specialists is common as from a pool of 10 doctors, only five would go into a specialist field and out of the five, one or two would go into a sub-specialty like rheumatology.

A rheumatologist is a sub-specialty that deals with rheumatology diseases while nuclear medicine uses molecular therapy and radiopharmaceuticals for diagnosis and therapy.

Dr Afif said Penang Hospital had raised the issue recently with the hospital director and staff as foreign patients were taking up limited beds and filling up their appointments book with some of the hospital specialists.

Sometimes the foreign patients could not afford a longer stay at the private hospital to recuperate or even under the intensive care unit (ICU), so they transfer to the Penang Hospital instead, he added.

Dr Afif said the foreigners were required to pay the full amount when they seek treatment at the Penang Hospital but the bill is far cheaper than what it would cost at a private hospital.

Some foreign patients opted to transfer to the government hospital when they discovered they had to extend their stay as they could no longer afford the pricey private hospital.

“We can’t turn away medical tourists so that is why we have to arrange a dialogue session between the private and public hospitals to come to an amicable solution on this,” he said.

Dr Afif said one of the solutions that had been suggested was for private hospitals to take in medical tourists based on their respective resource capacities and capabilities so as to reduce future spillovers to the public hospital.