When travelling, the last thing you want is a medical emergency. No matter how healthy is the lifestyle we are leading, injuries can happen, even sudden changes to our health condition can occur, and when these things happen, it's better to be prepared. This is a lesson we learned one night while trying to choose a paediatric clinic in Penang, Malaysia. Apart from the basics, like travelling with some kind of a first aid kit, or having a travel insurance, maybe having a basic knowledge of what to do in emergency situations, you'll have to find relevant information online about the possibilities when you have to go to a clinic or hospital in a foreign country.
The idea of this post was born when we had to choose a hospital in Penang, some 4 weeks ago. Read on to find out why. I think we made a good decision, take a look at our review and experiences in the Penang Adventist Hospital. In the second half of the post, you'll find some general information about travel and health insurance possibilities, and our preferred travel insurance company.
And since we live in a world of disclaimers…
DISCLAIMER: This post is not a recommendation regarding any kind of medical issue or emergency. The only purpose of this post is to provide general information and share our personal experience. You should consult a doctor or contact a hospital in case of a medical issue. And please let me remind you gently, that you are responsible for how you use the information provided. We did not get any compensation for writing this review. The post contains affiliate links.
Choosing a hospital in Penang - our medical issue
I never thought that one of my first posts will be about a hospital. We are the kind of people that really only visit a doctor when it is inevitable, not a minute before. But if any of us has to visit a doctor, I want to be sure that we are in good hands.
A good week after we arrived in Penang, we had a really frightening medical situation, and I was trying to find relevant information online about the hospitals and our possibilities. I was googling almost all night, and I was surprised that - apart from the list of hospitals on the island - I could hardly find any useful information regarding an emergency or a paediatric care unit. I have to admit, I was just too nervous. In fact, I've rarely been so nervous in my life.
I wanted to read about personal experiences concerning the paediatric care, not just a single list of the best hospitals in Penang, which, to be honest, literally everyone can put together. I found a good report from an expat living here, but I don't remember if it was a blog post or in a Facebook group… see, I WAS NERVOUS. Since this search lasted for hours, after our first visit to the hospital, I decided to write a post about our experiences, in the hope that it will be helpful for others travelling to Penang with children.
So, back to our problem. One night my son had some severe breathing difficulties, which we never experienced before. He was coughing for a while now, but that was it, he was playing, as usual, running like crazy and without any problems. No fever, nothing that would show that we need to see a doctor. We thought, well, maybe the air-cons. Outside the temperature is 33 degrees Celsius, once we go inside a shop, restaurant, bus, taxi, whatever, it's mostly around 18 degrees.
About a week before that he had some typical allergic reactions, running nose, sneezing, red, itchy eyes, but these lasted only for a few days.
And then suddenly he had a high fever and severe difficulties with breathing. We didn't sleep much, trying to gather some info and monitoring him. Packed some basics because I saw some chances that we'll have to call an ambulance. Then at some point, he got a bit better, and we waited until morning to go to see a doctor.
In the morning we went to a hospital, the one that was closest to us and that I’ve read about at night.
Healthcare in Penang
Before writing about our experiences, let me give you a bit of general information about healthcare in Penang, Malaysia.
I was surprised to find out that Penang - and Malaysia, in general - is actually a famous medical tourism destination. Thanks to the affordable, high-quality treatments, people are coming to Penang from the neighbouring states, as well as the neighbouring countries (Indonesia and Thailand) for medical treatments.
You can find highly trained professionals and world-class equipment here, treating just about anything from cardiology to oncology, from rheumatology to plastic and reconstructive surgery, and almost every major specialisation in between.
The income generated by medical tourism in Penang state alone gives approximately 50% of all medical tourism income in Malaysia, according to the Chief Minister of Penang. I think that says it all.
There are quite a few excellent hospitals here with highly trained professionals and world-class equipment. You can find a list with the links to the major hospitals at the end of this post.
In case you are lucky enough to spend some time discovering Penang, and you still like to use guidebooks, this is our favourite:
The Penang Adventist Hospital
This was our choice, based on one person’s post and the fact that it was closest to where we live.
We only visited the Penang Adventist Hospital (or PAH), so as we don’t have experience, I cannot compare it to the other private hospitals in Penang.
I’m pretty sure that all the other hospitals in the list below (see end of post) are equally good and high quality, but we had such a great experience here that we would probably stick to this hospital if we had any problems in the future.
You’ll find the PAH on Burma Road, or Jalan Burma. Easy to get there with Grab or by Rapid Penang bus, number 101. In case you have some extra time there it is worth to check out the pictures on the walls of the Heritage Wing.
The hospital is part of an International Adventist Network (consisting of about 600 hospitals, clinics and dispensaries worldwide) and it is a not-for-profit hospital.
It has over 80, highly trained professionals working in 22 specialisations, modern equipment and a history dating back to 1924.
In the second building called the Specialists Complex, there is a wonderful canteen serving only vegetarian dishes and an excellent shop next to it, with mainly organic grocery products, ranging from different nuts and granola to a vast range of GMO free soy products, cold pressed and bottled fresh juices, different types of fresh bread from the Adventist Bakery. We found the prices quite good compared to other grocery shops offering organic products. It can be worth a check if you live close to the Hospital.
It is worth to take a look at the accreditations of the hospital too, it has the Joint Commission International accreditation for example, and the Malaysian Society for Quality in Health accreditation. As we are personally committed to promoting natural childbirth and breastfeeding, it was refreshing to see that the PAH is part of the international Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.
I'll just put this here because I'll be asked. No, we are not Adventists. You don't have to be an Adventist to be treated in this hospital, everyone is welcome.
Finding our way inside the hospital
Navigating ourselves was pretty easy, we asked for the way twice and found the paediatric clinic on the 4th floor of the second building, according to the directions given.
Basically, you have to cross the first building. Behind it there's a second building, here after you enter, go right while crossing the canteen and passing the grocery shop. You'll see two elevators. Choose the 4th floor.
Stepping out of the elevator you can see the lobby already. Take a number. When your number is called, you will have to present the child's passport and describe the problem. If you don't have a specific choice of your own, the staff is going to assign you a doctor.
Once this is done, take a seat and wait for your child’s name to be called.
Consultation and treatment
For the first call, you’ll be called into a room where the nurses take and register measures like weight, hight and fever, and your child will be assigned a number. When this is ready, you have to take a seat in the lobby again, and wait until your number is called.
Once your number is called, you’ll have to enter the doctor’s room for the check-up or whatever you went for. The doctor will do the required examinations, write you a receipt if your child has to take medicine, or assign some treatments, if necessary.
As we did not know any of the doctors there, we were assigned one. It is hard to put into words how happy and grateful I am to have met Dr. Agnes Tan Yao May. She was very gentle, kind and highly professional. She examined my son and explained everything. This is something that not all doctors do, and something that I highly appreciate.
It is worth to note that the Adventist Hospital has over 80 highly trained specialists (most of them studied in Malaysia and in other countries too, for example, our doctor studied in the UK also), all of them are multi-lingual and speak excellent English.
After the examination, Dr. Agnes wrote a receipt with the medicaments my son had to take, and we had to go to another room for treatment. This was made by one of the nurses.
Thanks to the treatment and the medicines, the next day my son's lungs were back at around 50% and one week later at around 95%.
Payment and collecting the medicine
After this, we had to take a seat again in the lobby and wait for the name of my son to be called. This time for the medical bill (which you can use in case you want to file a claim to your travel insurance company - do note, that the insurance company decides if you are going to be refunded or not, it depends on your actual policy and your present case) and payment.
When the payment was ready, we only had to go to the pharmacy to take out our medicines. And that was all.
Given the high quality, it was surprising to see just how friendly the prices were here. We would probably have to pay more for these in our home country, but surely much more in Western European countries, in the USA, Canada, Australia, and so on.
To show you the exact prices we paid, I'll put in a photo I made from the bill of our first visit.
We visited the doctor the next day for a check-up and a second treatment, then a week later for another check-up, where we got another type of medicament. On both of these occasions, we were treated in the same professional and comforting manner as the first time.
Some thoughts on the healthcare service we received in PAH
From the time we arrived and made the administration until we took the medicines from the pharmacy, everything - where to go and what to do - was explained to us, in a kind manner, every single time.
We could see and feel that both our doctor, the nurses and the staff is highly trained.
Everyone was multi-lingual, and everyone treated us with the utmost care and attention, at the same time everyone was calm and the whole atmosphere was very relaxed. I don't know if this is the standard in all Penang hospitals or it comes from the vision and mission of the Adventist Hospital but it was very refreshing and comforting to experience this type of healthcare.
Without going too far, I can tell you, this was probably in the top 3 best medical care we ever experienced.
Paediatrics opening hours
Mon – Thu (8:00 am – 5:00 pm) Fri, Sun (8:00 am – 1:00 pm) Sat (Closed)
Lunch Hour (1:00 pm – 2:00 pm)
PAEDIATRIC NIGHT CLINIC
Sun – Thu (7:00 pm – 9:00 pm) Last Registration (8:30 am)
For further information, kindly contact: Tel: +604 222 7711 / 7712
Final thoughts on the Penang Adventist Hospital
Choosing this hospital was probably one of the best decisions we made since we left home for this open-end travel.
The night before we visited the doctor, was by far the scariest experience we had so far, regarding the health and safety of our children. I can only recall one bus drive in Sri Lanka that comes close to this. Yes, I'm trying to be funny here, this turned out to be such a serious post. But fun to the side, this is a serious topic.
I remember it's only a few months ago that I met a few other travelling families online and learned about a lot more families who would also like to travel and two of their main concerns was the quality of the medical service in a foreign country and what to do in an emergency in a foreign country. I couldn't really identify myself with these concerns a few months ago. Well, now I can. I guess it depends on the experience. 4 weeks passed, and when I wake up at night, I still have to check if my son is breathing or not. I freak out every single time he starts coughing. Or if he just makes a movement that looks unnatural to me.
But one important thing is to know, that these kinds of things, emergencies can happen at home too.
Now I can understand the concerns of other parents regarding healthcare in a foreign place, but at the same time, I know that personally for me it wouldn't be less frightening if this happened at home, in our home country.
Speaking about the Penang Adventist Hospital, one significant and entirely new experience we got there was that they really take healthcare to another level with the way they treat you, the patient.
Do you need travel insurance?
My short answer is: Of course you do!
But this is something that every traveller, every family should decide for themselves.
There are quite a few possibilities to have insurance while travelling: debit and credit cards, bilateral agreements and purchasing a travel insurance policy.
Debit and credit cards
A lot of credit/debit cards have travel insurance as an included service in the card fee, but sometimes it can be quite basic. And I haven’t seen one so far that was good for more than 90 days from the time you left your home country. We chose to use this version a lot for shorter trips in the last few years.
Some people tend to rely on their credit card alone, as some hospitals accept it instead of travel insurance. Of course, this means a credit card with a high credit limit, and it is in the discretion of the hospital to accept it or not.
Bilateral international agreements
Note that this is only for medical issues, while a travel insurance (either card based or not) will cover you for other circumstances too, for example in case your plane is delayed, or your luggage is lost, and so on.
If you put in some effort and time, you can find out if the country you’re travelling to has a bilateral agreement covering social security and healthcare with your home country or not. If the answer is yes, it means that to some extent, you are eligible to the local healthcare in the foreign country.
Should you rely on this version, you really have to dig deep and see what is included in the agreement and what's not. This can be different in the different countries. Also, there are rules of how, when and to what extent you can claim your money back. I'm talking about worldwide travel.
If you are a resident of an EU country and you will visit another EU country, it is a bit easier, you have to take out an EU health insurance card in your own country, and that will cover quite a few things while travelling to another EU country.
Travel insurance policy
If you decide to purchase a travel insurance policy, do your homework and compare the different possibilities. Check the various travel forums, FB travel groups, compare the reviews, because that's where you can read about some real-life experiences. It's not all gold that glitters.
Travel insurance for extended or open-end travel
Now, this is something else. For extended or open-end travel you'll need to find a company that actually does it - insures you for this type of travel. There are not that many.
I've put in a lot of hours researching the possibilities of purchasing travel insurance for open-end and/or extended travel. In every single case, my research turned out one company, World Nomads.
At first, I was horrified by the price of the policies, so I researched further, then I decided to stick to our debit card based travel insurance. And the fact, that the country we visited first, Sri Lanka, has a bilateral agreement with Hungary.
We knew that our card-based insurance will only cover us for 90 days, but there was the bilateral agreement, so we thought it's going to be good for us. And once we fly again to another country, we'll have another 90 days covered… well, no. Turned out that we have insurance that only covers for 90 days from the time we leave our country of residence. By the way, I have a debit card that is promoted by some as the ultimate card for worldwide travel, frequent travel, digital nomads… it is the ultimate card, except that its travel insurance is useless if we don't return home at least every 90 days.
Since we do not return to our home country every 90 days, we can only rely on the bilateral agreements… or not.
Curious why on earth we don't return home for a while? Read about it in our Stepping outside our comfort zone - one-way ticket to Sri Lanka post. It's much shorter than this one, I swear!
At the time we found ourselves near a medical emergency, we again started to think about buying travel insurance. As frightening as the price was for the first look, the reviews and most importantly, the experiences of other people convinced us to choose World Nomads as the only insurance company we would want to deal with.
You can purchase a policy online, while already travelling. For us, this alone is a huge selling point. But to take it to a whole new level, it is highly customisable, you can buy it for one country, or more countries.
You even have the possibility to extend your policy if let's say your child convinces you that he/she considers you a cool mother/father only if you jump down from a bridge attached to a single piece of rope or something similar.
Sounds interesting, right? Check out some of the most important facts about the World Nomads travel insurance in the next section. You will find our affiliate link below, if you click on this and make a purchase, we can get a commission. We are affiliate partners of different companies and use these links to finance our website… no, actually we will use these links to finance our website once we start to earn any commission on any of these… haha, real life!
7 things you should know about travel insurance from WorldNomads.com
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World Nomads keeps you travelling safely All WorldNomads.com members have access to up-to-date travel safety alerts, as well as travel safety advice and tips online through the World Nomads Travel Safety Hub.
More than just great value travel insurance All WorldNomads.com members can learn the local lingo through a series of iPod & iPhone Language Guides and can stay in touch with family and friends with an online travel journal.
Commitment to exceptional customer service We want to make sure you get the most from WorldNomads.com. You can find out more about why travel insurance is important for your trip. If you have any questions about your travel insurance or travel safety in general, please contact WorldNomads.com directly.
We didn’t buy our insurance policy yet, because… well, because life doesn’t always go as planned. But in case we'll need one, this is our choice. UPDATE: we did buy a travel insurance through World Nomads in the meantime. Fortunately, we didn't have to make a claim yet, but I’m very impressed by the flexibility and the process itself, so I’m happy to recommend them.
I have a habit. I only recommend companies that we have personal experience with. In this case, it's quite clear that we don't have. I just have the reports of fellow travellers who already had to file a claim and had a smooth, professional procedure and were refunded.
Just think about it, if we had an insurance plan with World Nomads already, that wouldn't necessarily mean that we would also have experience with them. And this is really specific with travel insurances, purchasing it is one thing. You cannot decide how good or bad it is until you have to file a claim. Before something happens to you, all you can judge is if your travel insurance is cheap or expensive for your budget.
In fact, I do hope that the only thing we'll have is an insurance policy, and not a personal experience with World Nomads (or any other insurance company) because that would mean that we are sick or injured. But based on my research, I'm pretty sure that if it happens, World Nomads is as good as it gets and we'll be in good hands.
List of private hospitals in Penang, Malaysia
These are the links to the top private hospitals in Penang. Just click on any of these, and you'll be directed to the contact pages of the different hospitals, so that you can see the address, clinic opening hours (if stated on the contact page) and telephone numbers right away. The order of the hospitals on this list doesn't have any significance.
This list is by far not comprehensive, there are quite a few more hospitals and clinics - both public and private - in Penang. Let me remind you again, that this is just a list and not a recommendation of any kind.
If you are looking for government hospitals in Penang, check out this Wikipedia article.
We search and book our flights through Kiwi.com
For accommodation search and booking we use Agoda.com
We buy our travel insurance at WorldNomads.com
For international money transfer we use TransferWise.com
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Anyway, thanks a lot for reading! It really means a lot to me, to us! And remember, always, always stay informed, that's the only way to make well informed, right decisions.
If you are looking for hospitals or doctor recommendations in a foreign country, check the local Facebook groups, expat groups, you can find a lot of help in these.
If you are into buying travel insurance, always read the fine print, it can be just as useful as it is painful and time-consuming. It is worth to check travel forums (like country-specific Tripadvisor forums) or join travel groups on Facebook for real-life experiences, one of my favourites is the Living Differently group.