Aviation Interview with Sherene Azli  

CEO of Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC)


Sherene Azli is passionate in working towards the rise of the healthcare travel industry in Malaysia. Since her appointment in 2015, Sherene has worked tirelessly to realise Malaysia’s vision as the preferred global destination for international healthcare travellers. An energetic, articulate and meticulous leader, Sherene discusses her experience being at the forefront of the industry, how our country has progressed over the years, and the implications for Malaysia’s economy and reputation. 


What were the immediate challenges that you had to overcome when you were first appointed as CEO of MHTC? What were the goals and initiatives put in place? 

As I came into office, I had to analyse the situation and formulate an appropriate approach to pave the way for improvement. So, I identified three main initiatives;

(1) Optimisation of digital marketing: To build awareness meant that we had to engage local social media platforms in raising brand awareness, for example, using Malaysian influencers as ambassadors and creating a dedicated website for healthcare travellers to support the seamless end-to-end ecosystem that Malaysia offers.

(2) Sustainable growth: We did this by engaging with domestic and international stakeholders from both governmental and private sectors. In addition, we encouraged collaborations and open discourse with international subject matter experts such as Keith Pollard from the International Medical Travel Journal, UK; Ilan Geva, from Ilan Geva and Friends, US; and Prof. Ki Nam Jin, from Yonsei University, Seoul.

(3) Industry facilitation: We had to venture out into new markets that would contribute most significantly to the industry’s sustainability. Through numerous campaigns, we matched markets to the specialities of our healthcare industry (this is discussed further in Question 5). We realised that Malaysia, in her current capacity, is unable to be an expert in all treatment fields. Therefore, there was a need to build a niche identity for Malaysia, so that we could be distinguished from the rest.

What is the competitive advantage that Malaysian hospitals have over their Asian competitors such as Singapore, Thailand and South Korea?  

Our competitors in Southeast Asia such as Thailand and Singapore have had a twenty-year head start, however we have done well in catching up. Malaysia is very unique; MHTC was purposely set up by the government to promote the private healthcare industry, which is heavily regulated by the Ministry of Health (MOH) Malaysia, providing peace of mind by safeguarding patient safety. This in itself is our strong value proposition in contrast to our competitors which are more fragmented and operate independently from the government.

We believe that trust is extremely important in the medical industry; outcomes and communication are amongst the prime factors in establishing trust. With MHTC established under MOH Malaysia, the building of trust amongst different stakeholders was expedited.

Armed with the strong public-private partnerships, MHTC has spearheaded coordinations amongst the different stakeholders, providing a seamless end-to-end experience for our international patients.

Malaysia welcomes our patients by catering to a large variety of patients through competitive affordability and ease of communication. As a country which speaks English as a second language and many other languages such as Mandarin and Hindi, ease of communication is offered in Malaysia; translators can also be arranged. Malaysia Healthcare’s 79 healthcare providers can offer easy access to medical attention.

Ultimately, I believe that the best competitive advantage that Malaysia can offer is our famous ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and that the genuineness in our care is second to none.

Please tell us more about the various recognitions awarded to Malaysia and the implications it has for our industry in the present and for the future.

In the healthcare industry, international recognition such as awards are extremely important. Awards convey trust, competence, and reputation. In gaining acknowledgement on the international scene for healthcare travel, Malaysia was recognised as the “Destination of the Year” by IMTJ for three years in a row from 2015 to 2017. In 2018, we received a “Highly Commendable” from the same institution. Secondly, MHTC also won “Cluster of the Year” in 2017 and 2018 by IMTJ, an additional mark of approval for Malaysia’s excellent healthcare travel facilitation.

Moreover, US-based International Living also acknowledged Malaysia as the country with the “Best Country in the World for Healthcare” based on the Global Retirement Index from 2015 to 2017 and once more 2019. Malaysia is also listed as the top Asian country for retirement in 2018 and 2019.

Winning these awards positions Malaysia to be a top of mind healthcare travel destination and raises our global profile above our competitors.

What are the demographics that comprise the healthcare travellers in Malaysia and where do you focus in gaining more healthcare travellers in the future? 

We have identified Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, China and India as core markets, after accounting for the volume of healthcare travellers and growth potential of these markets. In 2018, we welcomed over 1.2 million healthcare travellers from these countries as well as individuals from Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia. 

The specialist services we offer such as cardiology, is one of the best in Asia; and our fertility treatments have a success rate of one in two clinical pregnancies, which is an exceptional result. In addition, we specialise in orthopaedics treatment, cosmetic surgery as well as bariatric (gastric bypass) treatment. All of these treatments have been internationally recognised by healthcare travellers, proven by the exponential increase on numbers on our shores throughout the years.

What impact has the healthcare travel industry had on the overall GDP since 2015?

We are very proud to highlight that the total number of healthcare travellers has increased from 643,000 to over 1.2 million from 2011 to 2018. From 2015 to 2018, our country’s healthcare industry has been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 17% in comparison to the Asia Pacific performance of 15% in the same period.

In 2018, our industry achieved close to RM1.5 billion in revenue receipts from the 1.2 million healthcare travellers. This growth contributed almost RM3-4 billion to the country’s GDP. This calculation is based on a multiplier effect of 2.24* times of hospital receipt which factors in out-of-hospital spending such as wellness, transportation, accommodation, as well as including touristic activities.

*Note: Multiplier effect estimated in The Global Wellness Tourism Report in 2014 by the Stanford Research Institute

How is MHTC’s support from the government as well as from private corporate partnerships helpful to the industry’s growth?

MHTC is a government agency under the Ministry of Finance (MOF), which has been appointed with the responsibility of curating Malaysia’s healthcare travel industry. Since then, MHTC has worked to streamline industry players and service providers into a more focused development strategy to raise Malaysia’s profile in healthcare travel on the international stage through a strategic form of partnership. This model of partnership can be described as a public-private partnership (PPP).

In terms of the public sector, MHTC engages with agencies such as MOH, Tourism Malaysia, Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE), Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), and MOF. In order to continuously facilitate industry growth, MHTC maintains close ties with the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia (APHM), the main driver of the private healthcare sector in Malaysia.

Furthermore, MHTC’s working relationship with the Immigration Department of Malaysia has resulted in the all-new eVISA (Medical) platform. eVISA (Medical) is an electronic visa that facilitates the entry of healthcare travellers seeking medical treatment in Malaysia’s private hospitals. This is to avoid the unnecessary hassle of leaving the country and re-entering for the sake of renewing a standard visa.

I would also like to share that Malaysia Healthcare provides an exclusive,
seamless, end- to-end service, which is our way of translating ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ to patients; and this is where our private partnerships come into play. It is a service
that provides a smooth experience from the arrival at the airport, all the way to the hospital. Our dedicated personnel greet the healthcare travellers from their arrival gate and assist them all the way through immigration and luggage claim. Our Malaysia Healthcare lounges in KL International Airport (KLIA and klia2) and Penang International Airport are able to service both incoming and outgoing healthcare travellers, from when they land until when they decide to return home.

What is your educational and professional background, and how has it been essential for leading MHTC?

I hold a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Durham (United Kingdom) and a Bachelor of Business
Studies (Hons) in Accounting & Finance
from the University of Limerick (Republic
of Ireland).

Prior to joining MHTC, I was the General Manager at Talent Corporation Malaysia, where I played an instrumental role in building strategies for talent development in 12 key sectors. Preceding that, I was in Telekom Malaysia for 15 years, where I was the Vice President of Group Marketing and subsequently, the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development.

Over the years, I have developed the belief
in accentuating the power of developing human capital; I perceive value in building industry relationships and networks, and hence carry these ideals with me into my current role.

What do you like to do in your free time? 

At least twice a week, I run and swim. I also enjoy reading and travelling. However, what I believe to be the utmost importance is to get 7-8 hours of sleep every day.