Cover story: A reputation for success

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In 2002, Dr Lim Yin Chow returned to Malaysia after studying medicine and living in Hong Kong for 10 years. The next year, he started the HSC Medical Centre with his business partner Dr Soo Chee Siong, aiming to do “something different”. Unlike a conventional hospital, his centre focuses on preventive medicine, diagnostics and the treatment of specific conditions, namely heart ailments and stroke, he tells R B Bhattacharjee and Siow Chen Ming. After seven busy years, he is ready to move from a shopping arcade to a RM400 million dedicated facility in the diplomatic row.

The Edge: What made you return from Hong Kong? Isn’t the market there bigger?Dr Lim: We saw how things work there, and wanted to try them here. Over here, most hospitals are opened by businessmen. We’re medical people, so we know what the market or patient wants. This is different from the entrepreneur’s point of view — that you set up something, mainly for profit.
There’s a niche market in our area.
In normal hospitals, the focus is very much on the patient. Doctors are trained to deal with diseases. Over here, our focus is different: 50% of our focus is on diagnostics, and 50% on treatment, mainly of cardiovascular disease.
Currently, in terms of number of procedures done, we may be one of the biggest private heart centres in Malaysia. We’re well known for day-care balloon angioplasty and stenting.At present, two to three hours after the procedure, the patient walks home, even if it was a 100% blockage.
This is among the things we do that have attracted patients from the five continents. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a regular customer. He comes for check-ups. In most of the hospitals, the patients will need to be admitted overnight before they are discharged.

Where do your medical tourists come from?At our centre, 70% of the patients are foreigners. They are mainly from Indonesia (60%), Hong Kong, the UK, Spain, the US, Africa and Indochina. This is excluding expatriates who live here.
There are not too many from Singapore, because of its comprehensive healthcare system, which includes MediSave. If they seek treatment in Malaysia, I don’t think MediSave can pay for that.

Do you find Indonesian patients coming here instead of Singapore?There is a trend for Indonesians to seek treatment in Malaysia instead of Singapore. One is that it’s more cost-friendly to come here. In Singapore, it would be easily more than double due to the strong Singapore dollar.
Two, Malaysia is strong in cardiac care, especially centres like ours. The patient will not compromise on pricing for heart treatment. They will ask around for whom to go to.
Because of the skills that we have and the technique that we, Malaysian doctors, have developed in this area, we are the preferred centre in cases of complete blockage and very complex coronary heart disease. We are one of the few centres in the world that have this capability.
The only way the patient will come here is by word of mouth.
Three, many Indonesians notice that Malaysian doctors are multilingual. They speak Malay with Indonesian patients, Cantonese with Hong Kong patients, English with Caucasians. Today, most Singapore doctors cannot speak Malay, so there is some difficulty in communication. This puts us in a good position to become a top medical hub.
Four is the technique. In medical tourism, you have to benchmark against a top hospital, say, Mount Elizabeth in Singapore, a top hospital in Sydney or elsewhere. Then the foreign patient will know where you stand.

What do you offer that gives you the edge?Most hospitals don’t provide preventive healthcare or a comprehensive diagnostic service, but we do. We have five diagnostic packages based on age group, family history and medical history.
We’re the first centre in the world where you get a full medical report of comprehensive tests on the same day. In Singapore, it takes a week or more to get a full report done.
You must understand that foreign patients have no loyalty. Today, if you are better, they’ll come to you. Tomorrow, if you’re inferior to a hospital in Hong Kong or Singapore, they’ll all zoom over there. So, the skill is very, very important.
I think the reason we are successful is that we always stay ahead. We remain the pioneer in our area. For example, our diagnostic packages, our preventive programmes keep evolving every year.
That’s because in our area, it’s very competitive. Between Hospital A and Hospital B, the difference could be only 5% to 10%. So, in order to win, you have to be that 5% to 10% extra special.

What are you offering that is new?Currently, we have two centres. The one in Cheras focuses on the spine and joints. Here in KL, in our main centre, we focus on medical and heart cases. If you look at our website, we allow the patient to choose among preventive, diagnostics and treatment options. You can put in your age and other details, and the system will help you to choose your package. This software was developed in-house.
The packages are very comprehensive. And the tests that are listed here are upgraded almost every year. The price is transparent, no hidden costs, so the foreigners can see what they want and make their bookings on the PC.

So, what is holding us back from becoming a top medical hub?The government needs to be a bit proactive in promoting medical tourism. It has done a lot of things, like in Budget 2010, by giving tax incentives for treating foreign patients, but I believe it should do more... like allowing us to advertise to foreigners. But actually you have to be famous locally before the foreigners will get to know you.
In certain treatments like stem cell therapy, for instance, we are not inferior to Singapore, but we are not allowed to make ourselves known to the public.
In Singapore, the government takes the lead, for example, by advertising in publications like the Reader’s Digest, saying they do this and that. So, the world’s perception is that Singapore is very advanced, and that we are not.
They have a website: Singaporemedicine.com and they spend money on advertising.In Malaysia, the government has told us it will liberalise the sector, but we’re still waiting for the good news.

Doesn’t the Private Health Care Act now allow advertising?At present, we can advertise, with approval. The criteria for approval need to be examined. You are not allowed to mention how good your services are. So, how can people understand (how you are special)?
The [health] ministry says individual doctors are not allowed to advertise, which I agree with. But we’re talking about advertising by the institutions.

What is the number of patients that you have?We’re not allowed to say how many patients we’ve treated. But they’re a bit softer if it’s reported in the news.
Since our launch in 2003, we’ve received close to 30,000 new patients, and a similar number of repeat patients.

How much capital did you start with?We started with around RM15 million. Then, we started the heart centre, and the total outlay was about RM40 million to RM50 million.

How do you assure patients on service quality? Have you gone for accreditation?Here, 95% of our patients learn of us by word of mouth. We’re not allowed to advertise, so that’s the only approach we have. Today, patients are very knowledgeable, whatever the service. They just Google it. They will discuss the entire process with the doctor. This is the Internet era, you know.

This article appeared in Corporate page of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 783, Nov 30 – Dec 6, 2009.