COMMENT | Vaccine passport needed for medical tourism

Dr Kuljit Singh

Modified 22 Mar 2021, 4:51 am

COMMENT | Covid-19 has been in existence for than more than 16 months since the first case was reported in China in November 2019. Subsequently, with its global spread, it has brought down the world's economies inclusive of medical tourism in Malaysia.

In 2019, medical tourism had RM1.7 billion in revenue. The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) in 2018 projected that by 2020 the revenue would be RM2.8 billion. However, with the surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, the loss was inevitable.

The country has commenced vaccination for frontliners since February and soon we will move into the second phase whereby the high risk will be vaccinated. From August, it will be for the rest of the citizens and other Malaysian residents. 

It’s time we prepare to create vaccine passports for our citizens. Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin recently informed us that there have been discussions on this with China and Singapore for the recognition of our digital certificate. 

The vaccine passport should not be limited to just vaccination but also to the latest Covid-19 tests (RTK, PCR or AB) conducted before travel which gives options to the public and in-bound medical tourists in case they have not been vaccinated.

Our concerns are on the implementation and recognition of digital vaccination passport for international patients who intend to visit Malaysia for medical tourism as there have been vaccination programmes in many Asean countries before Malaysia vaccinated its first citizen.

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased attention on maximising our digital potential. The healthcare sector recognises the work needed to establish a digital infrastructure that builds trust in patients, particularly medical tourists, and exemplifies safety - both physically and digitally. 

One of these areas in the digital structure is a system of digital passports which provide proof of vaccination against Covid-19. Blockchain technology would be the most ideal solution to implement such a system, especially a decentralised blockchain ledger which would provide anonymity, immutability and more importantly, transparency.

We strongly propose to the government to begin implementing such a system immediately. We first need universally defined standards for how a digital vaccination passport should work, which can be easily adopted and adapted from other countries. 

Beginning regionally would be the best option, to test and implement the passport within Asean first and this will serve both medical and commercial tourism.

Locally, we need all stakeholders to collaborate and set the stage for this system from a regulatory perspective to balance prioritising safety and reopening economies. Scalability must also be considered, where data storage is concerned, to accommodate the population of the nation and inbound patients.

Private hospitals and other related agencies would like to have the Health Ministry play a strong role as a regulatory body especially for determining the authenticity of health vaccination information. 

Our proposal would be to commence medical tourism in this manner once a large group of our citizens have been vaccinated but not until the end of the vaccination programme as it will further delay economic recovery.

With this in mind, reimagine a blockchain-enabled Covid-19 registry with the information sitting on a distributed ledger system particularly for Asean. It acts as the single source of portable and verifiable truth and the backbone of various other health apps, tools and interventions in development by government and private entities for both local and international patients. 

Through the power of data, it can support targeted Covid-19 public health interventions and revive the economy strategically in an informed way and jump start the economy.

The benefits from blockchain technology will help project Malaysia’s aspiration to transform our nation into a digitally driven, high-income nation and a regional leader in the digital economy as well as start the booming medical tourism again as it was in 2019.

DR KULJIT SINGH is the president of the Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.