“If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practise my art, respected by all humanity and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my life.”
– The Hippocratic Oath
Mary was entering her mid-thirties when it finally dawned on her that she is reproductively challenged. The thought of her own infertility did play in her mind when she was much younger but her suspicion was only confirmed recently when she was diagnosed for polycystic ovarian syndrome (POS). The strange thing was, the diagnosis did not come from her fertility doctor, who had then been too eager to start her and her husband on the notoriously expensive and invasive in vitro treatment, without first examining their health.
The diagnosis for POS had come up through her own initiative. Once she and her husband decided that they would try to conceive through artificial insemination, Mary thought it would be prudent to go through a full medical check-up, “just to make sure my body is ready for the baby, you know. We’ve read that in vitro is very stressful and we want to make sure that we’ve tried everything possible to make sure that the conditions are conducive,” she said.
When her blood work came back, her thyroid function tests were elevated. Later, it was her endocrinologist who told her that in addition to hypothyroidism, she might be suffering from POS too. He told her that the sudden and continuous weight gain, increased cholesterol level, development of fatty liver, irregular menstruation, and acne are some of the symptoms of POS.
Mary had initially thought that these symptoms were attributed to her bad eating habits and sedentary lifestyle but it now explains why these unflattering conditions remain unchanged even after her vigorous attempts to eat and exercise better.
“The funny thing is, no one told me about it. The GP (General Practitioner) at the hospital where I did the full medical check-up did not alert me to anything after he examined my test results. All he did was to make me feel bad about my weight and asked me to take another test in three months’ time to see whether there are any changes to my thyroid functions. All this while, I had been wondering why I’ve been battling bad skin and weight gain. If only I had known earlier, I would have been less depressed and feeling hopeless all the time,” Mary said.
“You have most of the POS symptoms. Go home and do a search online. Read up and learn as much as possible about POS and then go see a gynaecologist to seek treatment. You need to solve all this hormonal issue first before you even try to get pregnant. There are other options before you start considering in vitro. Let’s get you fixed up first, ok?”
That was the most honest and reassuring conversation Mary have had with a doctor so far.
After reading up on hypothyroidism and POS on the Internet, Mary discovered that the chances of having a problematic pregnancy would have been high if she had become pregnant either through natural or artificial means. She confessed that much to her disappointment and great horror, she felt that the renowned fertility specialist she saw at a highly recommended infertility clinic in Kuala Lumpur should have informed her of this vital piece of information.
Mary and her husband initially reasoned that the specialist would have alerted them to her condition if only he had bothered to look at their medical records, which they had brought along with them during their first consultation, having thought pre-emptively that the doctor would have asked for it.
“It was going to cost us about seventeen thousand ringgit for the whole procedure and that doesn’t even cover the cost of a second treatment if the first one doesn’t work. With hypothyroidism and POS, the chances of having a miscarriage would have been great.
"Can you imagine how devastating it would have been if we hadn’t known?” Mary asked and added dejectedly, “The thing is, the doctor didn’t even bother looking at our medical records, you know. They just wanted to make money out of us.”
Mary said that on hindsight now, she is not even sure whether the doctor would have warned them of the potential complications if he had known of her conditions. Mary insisted that her endocrinologist is the minority.
“There are definitely good doctors out there, but they are extremely rare,” she said. She revealed that she no longer trusts the medical service and would turn to her trusted online sites for all her medical diagnosis and query.
“You wonder why we should pay these useless doctors so much when we can find reliable answers online!” She laughed scornfully.
Mary is not alone when it comes to being at the receiving end of bad medical services and not trusting our medical practitioners. It would appear that more and more private hospitals are abandoning the Hippocratic Oath for personal gain.
A medical practitioner revealed that the price of medicine at a private hospital costs a lot more than an external pharmacy. He often advises his patients to buy their medicine from external pharmacies because it makes no sense for them to pay “cut-throat” prices for the same medicine. However, when Kelly tried to do precisely that, the doctor treating her apparently did not take it too well.
“Instead of giving me a prescription for six months as he had recommended, the bastard only prescribed me a month’s worth of medication. In other words, he was ‘forcing’ me to go back to him for a follow-up prescription and that would have meant paying him ninety ringgit for just a bloody piece of paper. Can you imagine that?!”
The Department of Pharmaceutical Services at the Ministry of Health informed that there is currently no law to control the prices of medication at private hospitals. However, it is encouraging when the Head of the Medicine Pricing Unit wrote, “As a patient, you have the right to obtain a prescription from your doctor to buy your medicine from any pharmacy even though it displeases the doctor. I believe that empowered patients can change the current bad habits practised by medical professions so that we can all guarantee affordable medication for the people.”
Vikram, another unhappy patient, shared the experience he had with his doctor when he was undergoing treatment for Hepatitis C. He said that he was mortified when the nurse asked about his treatment in front of other patients while he was waiting for his doctor in a clinic. He understood that the nurse probably asked out of customary politeness but he did not appreciate the fact that in the course of her doing so, other people had learned about his medical condition.
He said that patient information management is lacking in many healthcare facilities and was shocked that this clinic is part of a hospital that has received an accreditation from the Malaysian Society for Quality in Health (MSQH), the national accrediting body for healthcare facilities and services.
“On top of that, my doctor failed to inform me of all the side effects of the antiviral medication I was taking. There was no counselling or support for me and my spouse. The repercussions of the medication was so great that I felt as if the treatment had ruined an important part of our lives.
"For each visit, I paid ninety ringgit for a five-minute consultation where the doctor did practically nothing. Thankfully I had a good insurance coverage because the medication cost an arm and a leg. To be honest, I wish I had not undergone this treatment if only I had known of the repercussions. I wasn’t informed properly,” Vikram said regretfully.
As of June this year, 75 percent of public hospitals have received the MSQH accreditation while only 25 percent of private hospitals have. At the international level, only eight hospitals have received the Joint Commission International (JCI)’s accreditation.
The JCI is created by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organisations, a US government agency, aimed to improve the safety and quality of care in the international community through the provision of education and advisory services, and international accreditation and certification.
The assessment criteria used by the MSQH is quite similar to the one used by the JCI, except the latter provides additional components such as patient and family education, staff qualifications and education, medication management and use, and the assessment and care of patients; elements which seem to be sorely lacking in our own private healthcare services.
Previously, the government has made several attempts to make it mandatory for all public and private hospitals to obtain MSQH accreditation but these attempts have been put on hold thus far. Although having some sort of national or international accreditation by a recognised and credible agency does boost public confidence, alongside minimising and mitigating clinical and safety related risks, these accreditations do not take into account public rating. The application submission for accreditation is done by the hospital in question and the assessment is then carried out by a panel of surveyors appointed by the accreditation agency.
There is no consideration for public opinion on how the hospital has fared.
“As a patient, I would like us to have some sort of a scorecard for all the hospital in Malaysia. Something simple for a start and it can be done by civil society, someone independent and done from the patient’s perspectives.
"What we need is someone who will disguise as a patient to test out the hospitals. So you have this person who goes to several hospitals and says he’s got liver problem, for instance, and then he assesses how the hospitals handle him based on selected key criteria. The problem has to be the same though, so you can compare apple for apple,” Vikram suggested thoughtfully.
Kelly said the hospital’s ability to deal with complaints is something left to be desired.
“No point. I’ve written to a hospital before to express my dissatisfaction over their service. I haven’t received any response from them. This was last year. It’s like as if the hospital doesn’t really care if you’re unhappy with them. They have patients lined up anyway. So why should they care?”
Sumitra, who is married to a doctor, revealed that medical practitioners often tend to close an eye when their colleagues commit a medical error. This culture is deeply rooted on the notion of solidarity akin to the “I have your back now so that when I need you, you’ll have mine” philosophy.
This makes it virtually impossible to have a doctor testifies against the other, even when a grave error occurs at the expense of a patient’s life.
Perhaps what Malaysia needs is a patients association such as the one in the United Kingdom. The UK’s Patients Association provides a platform for the people to rate their National Health Service (NHS). The association also runs educational campaigns such as the Speaking Up Complaints Project which encourages patients to speak up against poor medical services and the NHS to improve the way it deals with patients’ complaints. The NHS is ranked as one of the top 20 best healthcare services in the world by the World Health Organisation.
Not all is lost. Malaysia seems to be doing remarkably well in the area of medical tourism. A private hospital in Kuala Lumpur is recently recognised by the Medical Travel Quality Alliance as one of the world’s top ten best hospitals for medical tourists. By taking advantage of the weaker Malaysian currency, foreigners from the Middle East, Europe and Japan are flocking to Malaysia to enjoy better medical treatment.
It would have cost the local patients an arm and a leg to receive treatment in these hospitals but Mary said, “If the service is compatible with the amount I pay for, why not? The problem with the private hospitals here is that I’m not even getting the value for my money.”
While our private hospitals continue to nurse tourists with top notch care, in order to stay competitive alongside South Korea, Thailand and Turkey, have they forgotten our own illnesses along the way?
This article was first published at The Malaysian Insider on 9 October 2013.