Fewer patients force private clinics to shorten operating hours

Private practitioners are asking the government to allow their hospitals to send some of their non-Covid-19 patients to them for treatment. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: General practitioners (GPs) say they are experiencing a slowdown following the movement control order (MCO) amid the Covid-19 outbreak, with some looking to reduce operating hours.

Dr Koh Kar Chai, who runs a clinic in Kuala Lumpur, says “a large number” of GPs are reporting in various chat groups that business has dropped 70-80% since the MCO came into effect on March 18.

The MCO — implemented to curb the spread of the deadly virus — was initially supposed to end on March 31 but has since been extended to April 14.

Koh said most patients who visit GPs to treat the flu, cough or minor injuries are staying at home if they feel they can treat themselves.

“By and large they won’t pop into a GP’s clinic. They are afraid to come to the clinic to see doctors over minor ailments,” he told FMT.

Koh says he now sees four to five patients a day. Prior to the outbreak and the MCO, GPs used to tend to an average of 20 patients daily.

Several GPs, he said, had already shut down their clinics temporarily during the MCO period as it did not make sense to continue operating when no patients were coming in.

The MCO, he also said, has forced him to tweak his routine. This includes shortening his opening hours.

And since the law stipulates that employees cannot be laid off and must be paid in full, he is in a quandary as to what to do with the current number of staff as the low number of patients will mean that the clinic will be unsustainable.

Koh also takes less time tending to individual patients mainly because of social distancing which the government and health authorities are encouraging.

“These days, I take five minutes unlike before when we would take our time,” he said, explaining that it would minimise the risk of exposure to a potential Covid-19 patient.

Koh suggested that the government hospitals and health clinics, which are swamped with Coivd-19 cases, refer their non-Covid-19 patients, especially those with chronic diseases, to GPs.

He proposed that the government subsidise these visits.

“I understand that many follow-up appointments of these patients are being postponed and it is understandable as public hospitals are busy dealing with the outbreak.

“But we also need to take care of them (non-Covid-19 patients).”

Dr R Thirunavukarasu, who runs a clinic in Putrajaya, said he had witnessed a drop of almost 60-70% in the number of patients. Before the MCO, he said it used to be “quite busy”.

The drastic drop has also forced him to close the clinic at night as “no patients are to be seen” and to reduce operating hours from 24 to 16.

He said some patients are afraid to come, thinking clinics are dangerous and they are worried about contracting Covid-19.

He said clinics took special efforts to disinfect equipment and the rest of the premises to ensure the safety of their patients.

Thirunavukarasu said GPs paid particular attention to patients with influenza-like symptoms. They will refer patients showing Covid-19 symptoms to the health ministry’s hotline for guidance on further steps to be taken.

Like Koh, he too has tweaked the way he runs his clinics. Patients, he said, are given hand sanitisers at the counter and also before leaving the consultation room.

He also follows up with those with upper respiratory infections for a few days through the telephone.

“Our regular patients call the clinic or check our Facebook page to seek advice or clarification on Covid-19. We have seen a big increase in such calls lately.”

Thirunavukarasu’s clinic also checks on its regular patients over the phone.

A GP from Sabah, who did not want to be identified, said his clinic was now only handling “30% of its normal” number of patients.

He no longer runs the clinic for 24 hours, closing his clinic around 8pm.

“Due to the MCO, at most times, there are no patients coming in,” he said.

And because there are fewer patients, he spends more time with those who seek treatment. Almost all of them talk to him about Covid-19.

“They worry about their chances of catching Covid-19. I tell them the odds of them getting into a road accident are greater.”

He also fields calls from patients who ring him up for advice on their health, which he dispenses free of charge.

The doctor felt the government should allocate a special allowance for private practitioners as Putrajaya needs their services more so now than ever in its battle against the pandemic.