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Greed and the healthcare industry

 | March 18, 2017

The government must ensure that it does not encourage exploitation of the sick.

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You are worried sick about the time when you may need medical attention. Queues at government hospitals are too long and charges at private hospitals are too high. So you end up buying medical insurance.

You may not realise that you are adding lubrication to a vicious cycle of profit and greed.

Recently, we read two different news reports about the provision of medical services.

In one, the CEO of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), Sherene Azli, was quoted as saying the medical tourism industry was very healthy. Apparently, the industry has grown by 25 per cent in just one year, raking in RM1.15 billion in revenue.

The other report, which quoted Health Minister S Subramaniam, painted a bleak picture of healthcare spending in Malaysia. The needs of the elderly, the rise in non-communicable diseases and technological advances have placed a heavy burden on the government.

Subramaniam said the government spent RM641 per person in 1997 and this cost had risen to RM1,626 by 2014. Ten per cent of the annual budget is allocated to the Ministry of Health, but the minister said that this was insufficient.

Noting that 50 per cent of Malaysians were turning to private medical services, he claimed that a voluntary insurance scheme would ease the pressure placed upon the private health sector.

He said: “We have a very resilient private sector which responds to demand, and if we create demand, we are confident the private sector will respond by investing in and creating infrastructure and facilities.”

Is the government trying to shake off its responsibility of providing adequate, accessible and affordable healthcare?

Now that medical tourism is big business in Malaysia, has the minister made a thorough study of its impact on our healthcare provision?

Medical tourists coming in to have their bosoms enlarged, their noses sculpted or their sagging bellies tucked in take up hospital places and the time and effort of our health professionals. Others with more serious medical conditions come because there is a long waiting list in their home countries and also because their money has greater spending power here.

When nurses, doctors and ancillary staff have to serve medical tourists, our own people may be deprived of professional treatment.

The MHTC has a concierge service and a lounge at KLIA and Penang International Airport. A meet-and-greet service enables the medical tourists to breeze through immigration formalities and get into a stress-free environment from the time they land until they arrive at a hospital. They are, of course, billed for this.

Now think of the sick rural dweller, the senior citizen who needs regular check-ups or the young mother who suffers from a debilitating disease and needs constant medication to keep her alive. They cannot afford to go to a private hospital. So they wait for hours to be seen by a government doctor. There is no-meet-and-greet service and they have to pay for their own transport and other costs.

Subramaniam needs to study the impact of medical tourism on the provision of local healthcare. At the same time, he must make himself aware that medical insurance is a euphemism for “exploitation of sickness.”

The insurance and pharmaceutical industries, along with geriatric care, health care and medical schools, need to be strictly regulated and monitored. Through the years, we’ve heard many allegations of scams in the insurance industry.

Medical insurance is not the panacea for the problems within our medical industry, and it won’t cure greed among insurance companies and doctors.

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

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