First-Class Healthcare For Half The Cost

There’s so much to love about island life in Penang, Malaysia. My wife and I rent a spacious 204-square-metre apartment—with a pool, gym and 24-hour security—for just $1,000 per month. Penang also has some of the best street food in Southeast Asia, we dine out regularly, three to four nights a week, and it costs as little as $5 each.

There are plenty of sandy beaches to stroll on and, if you enjoy the great outdoors, there’s numerous jungle trails to explore all over the island.

We opted to join The Penang Sports Club, a five-star facility boasting more lawn tennis courts than any other club in Malaysia. The tennis players there are all levels and ages—a few weeks ago I had a match with a gentleman who is 82. What I love about the club is that most evenings you can turn up on your own, register for a game and find yourself playing with strangers who soon become friends. It’s incredibly social and we’ve been greeted warmly as new members.

But it’s also, unfortunately, where my latest injury occurred. I say ‘latest’ because when I first arrived in Malaysia, six years ago, I decided that mountain biking would be my sport of choice. You may think that’s a dangerous activity to suddenly take up at the age of 47—and you’d be right. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time discovering the various hospitals in Penang and getting to know which ones had the best surgeons.

Recently—due to a jungle hike—I had a niggle in my knee. I knew something wasn’t quite right. However, when I received a message from one of my new tennis friends asking if I fancied a game, I couldn’t resist. Big mistake. Halfway through the second set I was in agony. You’d think I would have stopped, wouldn’t you? No, not me. I carried on. My thinking was, if there was damage then I might as well make the most of it.

The following morning found me limping into the Lam Wah Ee Hospital—a 700-bed tertiary acute care facility—minutes later I was seen by a specialist sports surgeon and, another half hour after that, I had an MRI. The results were instant, but, as he was reviewing the scans, he said, “Oh, that’s not good. Not good at all”. My heart sank.

It turned out I had badly torn my medial meniscus and surgery was the only option. I said I wanted it done as soon as possible. The surgeon said, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 8 a.m”.

Due to procedures being cheaper here, about a third of what they cost at home, we have the most basic medical insurance coverage. We pay $1,300 a year, and surgery of any kind is covered, provided you stay overnight. In fact, one of the reasons my wife and I moved to Penang was the excellent healthcare. It’s among the world’s best and cheapest and the doctors here have typically trained in the U.S. or U.K. Thankfully it’s rare that we use it, but, when we do, it’s good to know it won’t cost an arm and a leg!

When I arrived the following morning, the insurance company had already signed off on my procedure—the hospital contacts them on your behalf. My private room was lovely…a large, flat screen TV, a comfortable sofa that family members are welcome to sleep on, a private bathroom and great views of Penang Hill.

Altogether my treatment—including X-rays, an ECG, my surgeon, the anaesthetist and associated drugs for the following week—came to $2,640. In Australia it would have been $5,000, or, if you went private, anything up to $12,000.

The aftercare was also first class. I started physiotherapy two days later, which was fantastic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t covered under my insurance—but at just $13 a visit that’s not something that concerns me.

What continues to surprise me about the hospitals here in Malaysia isn’t everyone’s professionalism—that’s a given—it’s their friendliness. Hospital staff here make you feel like welcome guests. They speak perfect English and seem genuinely happy to see you. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen at home, but here it’s the norm. It’s rarely a happy occasion when you have to visit a hospital but a smiling face really does make all the difference.

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