NST Leader: Doctors in search of medicine

THE Health Ministry is facing a growing list of issues. One is the management of public healthcare. But this is a Leader for another time.

For now, it is the ministry's mismanagement of doctors specifically and public health workers generally. The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) is up in arms and so are the doctors.

Things were so bad in February that doctors were rumoured to be preparing to go on strike in June. We are glad they didn't because such a move would be a wrong committed against their patients, the very people they took an oath to treat. But what the ministry is doing — or more accurately is not doing — is wrong, too.

Consider MMA's proposal to the ministry to raise the hourly rate from RM9.16 (RM200 on-call allowance divided by 24 hours) to RM25. It was met with a dismissal from the ministry.

What was worse, those sitting in the comfort of the air-cooled rooms in Putrajaya thought it to be an "appropriate" rate. How is it appropriate, we ask. It will only be so if the ministry compares the doctor's on-call hourly rate with that of a barista's hourly rate of RM6.87.

But then, how could apples and oranges be compared? By some feat of cerebral acrobatics? Little wonder, MMA described the ministry's response as "an insult not only to doctors, but all healthcare workers in the country", in a media statement issued on Saturday.

MMA president Dr Azizan Abdul Aziz is right. The frustration among doctors in public healthcare is a matter not to be taken lightly. More than a decade of such frustration is pushing them to do the unthinkable.

One such was the July 26, 2021, strike by government doctors. Then, hundreds of junior doctors, mostly on contract, walked off the job after their complaints of low pay and an unhealthy work environment went unanswered. Some didn't return.

Some of the others who did, later left for the private sector or just hung up their stethoscope for good. What a waste to the country that is in terrible need of doctors. Here is a reminder to the ministry from MMA. The attrition rate among doctors is alarming.

Putrajaya should know this, but we cite the numbers anyway. Between 2017 and last year, there has been a 1,131 per cent increase in contract medical officers resignations. What's worse, they were not the only ones. Even specialists — 890 called it quits between 2018 and last year — had fallen out of love with government service, bringing the average resignation number to more than four per week in the five years. If this doesn't alarm the ministry, what will?

Brain drain in a vital service such as public healthcare, especially when Covid-19 is very much around us, must be a wake-up call.

The lack of transparency in recruiting permanent medical officers, low wages, inappropriate allowances, excessive working hours and an unhealthy (in all senses of the word) work environment are some of the main reasons for the brain drain.

If these aren't bad enough reasons, here is one which is worse: either a dead silence from those tasked with managing the issues or a response such as let whatever is, be. How else can we interpret "appropriate"?

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