Foreign interest in healthcare runs high

Foreign investors have turned their attention to multi-million-dollar projects in Myanmar’s healthcare industry after being shut out for years, encouraged by the country’s growing base of customers with money to spend.

A car drives into Yangon General Hospital, which is being upgraded with help from the UK government. Photo: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar Times

A car drives into Yangon General Hospital, which is being upgraded with help from the UK government. Photo: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar Times

Rising disposable income, a budding middle class and opportunities to target a market that currently relies on overseas medical care are enticing foreign companies to do business in the country.

They face “a huge opportunity because we are still in a very primitive stage of healthcare”, said Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry vice president U Maung Maung Lay.

The opportunity is also very new. Until 2014, foreign investors were restricted from providing backing for medical facilities.

The Ministry of Health has since liberalised the gravely underfunded sector, approving international investment into private hospitals, clinics, diagnostic services, the private production of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, and private medical and health-related education institutions, according to a recent report by UK Trade and Investment.

Regional neighbours Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – whose private hospitals the analysis firm BMI Research anticipates will represent the largest share of market entrants – have hopped into the healthcare sector since it was liberalised.

A major new entrant is Parkway Healthcare Indo-China, a subsidiary of Malaysia’s IHH Healthcare Berhard, which started building a US$70 million hospital in Yangon in January.

Parkway holds the majority stake in the joint venture consortium behind the plan, while Macondray Holdings – incorporated in Singapore – takes a 10.5pc share. Two Myanmar-registered firms split the rest.

“Myanmar’s long-term income growth potential and gradual emergence of a middle class, coupled with the rapid influx of foreign tourists and expatriates, are expected to bode well for private healthcare providers like IHH,” the company said in a press release.

Indonesia’s Lippo Group signed up for a $420 million joint venture with First Myanmar Investment (FMI) to build 12 hospitals in the future, according to Oxford Business Group.

Thailand’s Thonburi Hospital Group and Bumrungrad Hospital have both moved into the market – and more players may be on the way, especially from Myanmar’s southeastern neighbour.

“Due to the geographic proximity, Thailand-based healthcare providers are expected to be the most active in expanding into this frontier market,” said a BMI Research outlook from January.

“The influx of private healthcare providers into Myanmar will continue, creating positive spillover effects for both medical device and pharmaceutical firms.”

The flood of foreign attention has not been welcomed by all, however.

The IHH Healthcare hospital has been the cause of controversy in Myanmar, as students as well as medical professionals have rallied against the development.

Meanwhile, the National League for Democracy said in its manifesto its first priority would be improving and expanding basic healthcare provision. Other aims included reducing out-of-pocket spending on medical treatment – which often costs more at private hospitals. The manifesto also said the NLD would permit lawful openings of private hospitals and clinics in order to augment public health.

“Prior to continuing to pass legislation that makes it easier for international companies to build hospitals in Myanmar, people should think about the strategy’s potential for improving access to care for the average person,” said Yangon-based American Board of Family Medicine physician Dr Christoph Gelsdorf.

“Does a rising tide lift all ships in this situation?”

Source: Myanmar Times. Date: 23 March, 2016