KUALA LUMPUR, July 25 (Bernama) -- The dual public listing of IHH Healthcare Bhd, which made its debut on the Malaysian and Singapore stock exchanges today, provides a very powerful signal that Malaysia is now a big global player in healthcare, says the former Health Director-General, Prof Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican.
"The message to the region is that Malaysia is one of the "big boys" in terms of offering quality healthcare services and in terms of developing the healthcare industry.
"If you look from that viewpoint, we should be proud that Khazanah Nasional has ventured into a tremendous challenge in providing healthcare, not only for Malaysians, but for people in the region.
"It is good that we have this venture and foray into the healthcare industry but the challenge for our own Malaysian doctors and healthcare providers is not to be overawed by this global player coming into the local market," he told Bernama.
IHH is the healthcare arm of Malaysia's state investor, Khazanah Nasional Bhd. Its assets include Turkish Hospital Group Acibadem AS, Singapore's Parkway Holdings, India's Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd and Malaysia-based Pantai Hospitals and International Medical University (IMU).
It controls 83 hospitals in these countries, making it the world's second largest hospital operator after Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), which runs 163 hospitals.
Dr Ismail said he is a strong believer in competition because "you get no where without competition."
"If you get a healthy competition like this, it is good for the healthcare providers in Malaysia to spruce up and to make sure they are among the best.
Once the big players come in, then there will be more options to choose from as to where patients are treated," he said.
In order to meet the competition, he said, there ought to be a level-playing field because with the big players coming in, the quality of healthcare would improve and now that Malaysians have a choice, they would obviously choose the one that suited their needs in terms of good, safe and quality care.
The former Health Director-General said he particularly welcomed IHH's foray because he hoped this would be a wake-up call for the Health Ministry and the government to think further into accelerating the process of introducing healthcare reforms.
Dr Ismail, who is now Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of MAHSA University College, said healthcare was a huge enterprise which was good for the country and the Malaysian economy and "food" for healthcare itself although only a select group of people could enjoy the benefits of private healthcare such as this at the moment.
"This is not to say that it is bad. People who are rich are also thronging government hospitals. Now they have an option. They may not have been very confident in the private healthcare industry.
"Now with players with respected clinicians and a strong record, they have a choice. Perhaps, when these players come, the rich may want to go to hospitals like this. That may siphon some of the workload of government hospitals," he said.
The creation of IHH will also further boost the prospects for medical tourism as people come to Malaysia knowing that the country provides safe quality healthcare at affordable prices.
"It's not cheap but affordable. We are already finding with the very good health tourism record we have, with IHH coming in and looking at the facilities and services we do offer, it will be a boost for health tourism in the country and it will be good for the national economy," he said.
But Dr Ismail cautioned that Malaysians must do their part in ensuring that they remain professional and ethical at all times, adding that "you cannot deprive someone of care if they cannot afford it.
"Ethics is doing your job and doing no harm. This applies to foreign healthcare workers, too. Patient safety is paramount."
Elaborating on his assertion that the IHH would be a wake-up call for the Health Ministry and the public sector, he said they would have to make sure that they upgrade healthcare providers services and skills to match the competition.
"This means the government must provide more resources to beef up the public healthcare sector. More resources to make sure they assist in medical education in local medical schools.
"There's no need to send students to Cambridge or Oxford anymore. You can send a few to the Ivy League universities but make sure they come back to serve us and don't get lost in the radar," he said.
Dr Ismail said the government must be ready to pay more, provide more and give more for the public health sector and be prepared to do the reforms which have yet to be done despite his best efforts in trying to get them implemented during his time as director-general.
"The other wake-up call is for our own people to continuously upgrade their skills and knowledge. Some of us are world-class. People come to see me for liver problems from Indonesia and from India.
"Globalisation means there is competition and there may be resistance at first, but at the end of the day, it is who provides the best healthcare. The advantage is that there will be equal excitement to also upgrade the public sector," he said.
Asked if the government was already having a huge budget for public healthcare, Dr Ismail said, "We are only spending 4.6 per cent of the GDP. That is not enough. That's what a low-income county would spend.
"For a middle-income nation like Malaysia, we need to spend at least 6.4 per cent of the GDP. We need to push more but of course giving money is not the answer without instituting the reforms including healthcare finance mechanism.
"I challenge anyone who can tell me that we can proceed as we are without any form of healthcare reforms and healthcare finance mechanism. The price of healthcare is going up and up, especially with new technologies and unless we do something about it, the cost of healthcare will be left to market forces and at the end of the day, not only Malaysians won't be able to afford quality healthcare, even the government won't be able to provide it," he warned.
Asked what he would like IHH to do, Dr Ismail said he hoped the group would play a complementary role with the Health Ministry and Higher Education Ministry, the latter in terms of medical education, via the IMU under its stable.
"To complement means you share in terms of providing healthcare, in terms of providing medical education. When you share it, is a win-win situation. For instance, if facilities at the Health Ministry are running short, we can use your facilities and vice-versa.
"We shouldn't have to buy huge equipment if its already in IHH and vice-versa because IHH is going to do diagnostics and imaging," he added.