By Keruah Usit
There has been a recent rash of angry letters and articles in the press, detailing the incompetence and lackadaisical attitude of many of the new generation of junior doctors, known as interns or house officers.
Most writers are contemptuous about the majority of the 7,000 new doctors entering the ranks of the medical profession every year.
Some letters, on the other hand, are written by house officers or their families, complaining of long working hours and harsh treatment by specialists.
It is obvious that feelings are running high. Traditionally, most Malaysian doctors do not write in much to the press. Doctors rank among the most conservative citizens in the country.
Even when the profession was faced with the torture of 106 prisoners of conscience in Operation Lalang in 1987, most doctors remained silent.
But in recent months, like other urban, educated and Internet-savvy Malaysians, many doctors have been changing tack.
Senior doctors took a concerted stand in July against the tear gas and water cannon used in a police assault on Bersih 2.0 protesters sheltering in the grounds of Tung Shin Hospital.
Following the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj (left), one of the Emergency Ordinance Six (EO6), a large group of Perak doctorsworking in public hospitals looked squarely into the camera, and called for Dr Jeyakumar to be freed.
The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), the professional bodyrepresenting over half of all registered doctors, also criticised the detention without trial.
This mutiny by middle-class Malaysians augmented the efforts of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), PAS, PKR and DAP, as well as civil society groups like Suaram, Aliran, the Bar Council and religious groups, in pressing the Home Ministry to release the detainees.
Vocal debate over ‘substandard’ interns
Some concerned doctors are now warning of future disaster in our health care, caused by substandard new interns.
“The storm is coming… Commercialisation of medical education will soon affect all of us. The glut of doctors is getting worse and many of them are being under-trained,” wrote Dr Pagalavan Letchumanan, a consultant rheumatologist and prolific blogger on crucial issues in health care.
Prominent doctors argue that profit-seeking degree factories in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Egypt and Indonesia, as well as local medical schools with low teaching standards and inadequate lecturers, have condemned thousands of house officers to a hollow career they are not qualified for, and ill equipped to cope with.
The number of medical schools in Malaysia is 35, a staggering number for a population of 28 million. This is twice the corresponding ratio for the United Kingdom, with 33 medical schools for a population of some 62 million.
Of these 35 local institutions, 18 in the public and private sectors have already passed out house officers. Another 17 medical colleges will produce graduates between 2012 and 2017. Understaffing in local institutions is endemic.
The government claims the new doctors are needed to improve the ratio of doctors to patients from the current 1:1000 to 1:400, a level typical of developed nations, by 2020.
The Health Ministry has reneged on last December’s promise of a moratorium on new medical courses.
Several senior government doctors, requesting anonymity, blame political patronage by ministry officials, in this lucrative business of producing doctors, for the huge excess of house officers.
Greed, they claim, has been the prime mover behind the proliferation of officially recognised, but substandard, medical degrees from deficient medical schools, both inside and outside the country.
But many of these same senior doctors in the public service fail to report the poor performance of some of their new interns to the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC), the licensing body.
Some supervisors dread the paperwork involved in blocking the inept doctors from being registered. Others are simply reluctant to rock the boat.
These established doctors clearly lack the mettle of more vocal colleagues, like the current MMA president, Dr Mary Cardosa, who spoke up for Tung Shin patients, and for Dr Jeyakumar.
‘Pampered and reluctant’
Several specialists tasked with training the new doctors say many of these interns are pampered, reluctant members of the profession, cosseted by unrealistic, well-to-do parents.
Firsthand accounts by these specialists indicate the average quality of interns has plummeted, even though there has been a surge in quantity.
One surgeon said he received a telephone call late one night from the angry father of an intern. The father complained bitterly that the surgeon had ticked off his daughter for a mistake, earlier that day.
The surgeon asked to postpone the conversation until the next morning, explaining he was on his way to the operating theatre, but the father kept up his barrage of verbal abuse.
A specialist in Sabah recounted an episode of a house officer going absent without leave for several days. When challenged, the young doctor claimed he had been admitted to a private hospital for a “heart attack”. A check with the private hospital confirmed it had never heard of him.
“Some house officers just don’t know the basics,” one exasperated consultant told Malaysiakini. “I was trying to teach two house officers, both of whom had been working for a year.
“I was soon reduced to asking the most basic questions. Even then, they couldn’t tell me the normal range for the heart rate. One guessed ‘60 to 80′.
“Even Wikipedia has the correct answer. They couldn’t tell me what a normal blood pressure was either.”
Another specialist added, “Some of these house officers did not make the grade to enter reputable universities for a good reason. Their parents shouldn’t have forced them to become doctors, they’re simply not interested.”
There are, undeniably, a number of bright, dedicated potential doctors in the ranks of the new house officers. But the lack of motivation among many of the interns is plain to see.
One government specialist tried an age-old trick to elicit some empathy for a patient who had been treated badly by an obdurate house officer, by asking him: “How would you feel if this were your own mother, lying here in this bed?”
The specialist was taken aback by the young doctor’s reply.
“My mother wouldn’t be in this bed. She’d be in Singapore if she fell sick.”
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted email@example.com