GEORGE TOWN: The Penang Hospital was once touted as among the best government hospitals in the country, with a wide range of specialists and the latest equipment.
But recent testimonies of patients show that it has become a signpost for suffering and long waits.
Its 10 main operating theatres (OTs) have been closed for the past two years as part of an upgrade project that is yet to be completed. The project, totalling some RM15 million, was to upgrade the intensive care unit, the air conditioning and electrical systems, and the medical gas plant. It was supposed to be completed in two years — from Feb 17, 2016 to Feb 18, 2018.
Major cases such as heart-related surgeries and eye surgeries are now referred to the Seberang Jaya Hospital on the mainland, the other specialist government hospital in the state.
But the Seberang Jaya Hospital has its own set of problems. It is already bursting at the seams with just four main OTs and a long list of patients who have been kept waiting for months. Add to that is a shortage of beds.
Penang Hospital is the only government hospital providing cardiothoracic (major heart) surgery service in the north.
Up to 18 months for a surgery
The delay in the upgrade of the 10 main OTs means the waiting time for patients seeking such surgeries has gone up from the usual six months to 15-18 months, a source told FMT.
The source said the 10 closed main OTs cannot be reopened as the air-conditioning system there could no longer sustain a temperature of 21-22° Celsius, as required in an OT.
The other seven OTs for minor surgeries at the hospital cannot cater for major surgeries. These cases have to be referred to hospitals as far as Kuala Lumpur.
The upgrade project was supposed to have begun in December 2016 and completed by December 2017. Officials say the end-of-contract date was supposed to be Feb 18 this year.
Low-income patients are now left to suffer or are forced to fork out huge sums of money for treatment at private hospitals.
RM12,000 to fix a leg
Siti, 49, works as a janitor in Gelugor. She first sought treatment at the Penang Hospital more than a year ago, to treat a problem with varicose veins on both her legs.
Doctors said she could be treated with a surgery, but that would have to wait for the main OTs to be upgraded.
After more than 12 months of pain and anguish, Siti decided to seek treatment at a private hospital. She was charged a whopping RM12,000 for laser treatment and two weeks’ stay — for just her left leg.
“One night, the pain became so bad, I rushed to the Penang GH emergency ward. The doctor there told me my veins were at risk of bursting and this would affect my heart.
“They told me their OTs were still closed and they couldn’t do much. They made me wear compression stockings and sent me off.
“But my problem became so bad that I took a loan from my friends to seek treatment at a private hospital. But even then, I could only do that one leg,” she told FMT.
Siti said Penang Hospital’s cost to operate on her veins would also have been costly — RM3,000 for the entire surgery, for both legs.
Another affected patient said her third and critical heart surgery had to be delayed by the Penang Hospital.
The woman, in her 40s, who declined to be named, took a bank loan amounting to “tens of thousands” to undergo a heart surgery at a private hospital.
A Penang Hospital doctor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said many family members of patients had “come begging and crying for help” at the consultation rooms in hopes of having their surgeries expedited.
“I could only say sorry and tell them the OTs are not ready,” the doctor said.
A highly-placed source claimed the contractor in the Penang Hospital main OT upgrade project had his share of problems with the Public Works Department.
“Why can’t we take someone better?” the source asked.
The source said while there are seven other OTs at its day care centre, or Ambulatory Care Centre (ACC), these OTs are meant for smaller surgeries.
In response, Penang Health director Dr Wan Mansor Hamzah said the upgrade works were not completed on time due to a change of plans mid-way through the upgrade project.
He said half-way through the upgrade, “several weaknesses” were discovered in the original design, which did not meet the latest medical standards.
Mansor said this led to the health ministry adding extra components to the upgrade to ensure the safety of medical workers and patients in surgery.
“The health ministry then agreed to add a wider scope of work for the OTs and the project was re-awarded on June 12 to the same contractor.”
On the issue of lack of OTs for surgeries, Mansor said there were seven other OTs.
He claimed of the seven OTs, three are for emergencies and minor surgeries and the rest for major surgeries.
Mansor said there were also three other OTs for major surgeries at the Kepala Batas and Bukit Mertajam hospitals, with cases referred there.
He said the closure of the OTs did not affect emergency cases, adding that the number of surgeries remained the same prior to the closure.
“There has been a reduction of 30% of elective (pre-planned surgeries) cases due to day-care-related cases and are not emergency cases,” he told FMT.
Time for health ministry to act
Coordinator for a free clinic, P Murugiah, said he had received complaints about the long wait for surgeries at the Penang Hospital and heard several horror cases stemming from that.
He said the health ministry must despatch its mobile OTs immediately for the hospitals in the state as a stop-gap measure while the upgrades were carried out.
“A lot of poor patients are suffering.
“It is best for the new health minister to conduct an audit of all services at the Penang Hospital.
“Better yet, he should come here and see for himself the situation,” said Murugiah, who operates Klinik Derma Sivasantha.