DR DAVID K.L. QUEK, President, Malaysian Medical Association
WHEN the government announced in the 2010 Budget the setting up of 50 1Malaysia clinics in urban areas, the Malaysian Medical Association was perplexed.
However, what is disturbing is the plan to have these clinics run by medical assistants and nurses, which in effect places the standard of these clinics at the level of Third World countries, where there is a real shortage of registered physicians.
The MMA is gravely concerned that such a major shift in policy with regard to public sector healthcare should be implemented without sufficient input from and discourse with stakeholders, such as medical practitioners and perhaps even Health Ministry officials.
It has been suggested that even some health officials were taken aback by this announcement, but they have been instructed to implement the decision next month.
Firstly, let me reassure the public that the MMA is not simply protecting its turf. Of course, we are keenly interested in the welfare and wellbeing of medical practitioners, but we are also concerned about our patients, that is, the rakyat who are our reason to exist, our raison d'etre.
We welcome the government's concern about the health needs of the people. We also recognise that for many urban poor, the only recourse to healthcare is that offered by the ministry's overcrowded and understaffed outpatient clinics. That there has been much queuing and long waiting times is regrettable and wasteful in terms of productivity. Certainly, we should do better.
We also know that new ministry directives have been employed to shorten waiting time to less than 30 minutes: this has been included as part of the Key Performance Indicators or Key Result Areas announced by the government.
Perhaps this huge problem, the need to lessen the burden of fixed outpatient clinics and the logistics of manpower distribution, has prompted this new approach.
But we also urge the government to recognise that throughout the country, there are many general practitio-ner (GP) clinics available in almost every urban block of shophouses and business complexes.
There is a severe glut of GPs in urban areas, such as Klang Valley, Penang, Johor Baru, Malacca, Ipoh and other major towns. In these cities, the ratio of doctor to population is 1:400 -- better than the World Health Organisation's recommended ratio of 1:600.
While some GPs have been successful, the great majority of them simply eke out a mediocre living. Most GPs see less than 20 patients per day and are, therefore, under-utilised. This is grossly unproductive and wasteful.
The problem is learning how to manage the distribution of the doctor-patient function more efficiently.
It is with this in mind that for several years now, the MMA and the ministry have been seeking an efficient public-private partnership in shaping a better healthcare system for the country.
Unfortunately, because of the differential system of fee and/or payment mechanisms, it is proving to be rather tricky to bring about a cohesive transferable system.
Thus, there have been talks about integrating the public-private sector for primary care medical services.
Of course, quite a few discrepancies need to be addressed, for example, differing expectations and amenities available. But this can be worked out and we are establishing common areas of standardisation which will ensure that the public can be assured of as high a standard of healthcare as possible.
In this context, the establishment of the new 1Malaysia clinics appears to be unnecessary. If the government feels that these clinics should be set up despite the protests of the medical profession, then the least it should do is to ensure that these clinics are manned by registered medical doctors.
The standard of medical care should not be compromised.
Why is this such a prerogative? Because in this day and age, it is unbecoming to offer a lesser level of care to citizens just because they cannot afford to pay to see a doctor.
Employing medical assistants and nurses to do a doctor's job is called task-shifting, a practice employed mainly in Third World countries, where there is a severe shortage of doctors. To do so in this country would be a major step backwards and, in the MMA's view, unnecessary.
Do we have enough doctors? Of course, we do. It is just the poor distribution and logistics that need to be addressed.
Recently, more than 2,500 new doctors joined the public service as house officers. It is learnt that many of them are under-employed in various government hospitals.
Owing to the mushrooming of medical schools (23 as of this year) in Malaysia and medical graduates returning from abroad, we will have some 2,000 to 3,000 new doctors returning to our shores annually.
We can certainly tap into this resource to help run our public clinics more efficiently. At the very least, the public will be better served by registered medical doctors.
Although they may only have a probationary medical licence, the fact remains that they have had sufficient training and knowledge. Medical officers, registrars and specialists can supervise these doctors.
Why is the MMA so concerned about clinics being manned by medical assistants or other unregistered medical practitioners?
Because under the Medical Act 1971, this is illegal. Because doctors who employ such unregistered persons have been charged and penalised for unprofessional conduct. Because medical assistants cannot prescribe any more than some simple medicines, cannot sign any medical leave chits or write any reports, and would become subject to medico-legal challenges with no precedents.
There should not be one law for some and another for others, even if it is approved by the government or the ministry. The MMA believes that setting up 1Malaysia clinics in urban locales is redundant, wasteful and shortchanges the rakyat. Utilising the existing GP clinics would be the better way forward.
Furthermore, the manning of these clinics by non-registered medical doctors is wrong and undermines the healthcare service, leading to a possibly poorer standard of care and many uncharted legal problems.
We urge a rethink on this project, and for the ministry to seriously look into the implications of this poorly advised move. The MMA will strive to work with the ministry to help raise the standard of healthcare for Malaysians, but not by compromising on the quality of care.