KUALA LUMPUR, August 27 — Malaysia’s health advocacy is still weak due to a dearth of advocates in civil society and grassroots, medical experts said.
“I think we are still at infancy and there are a lot more things that we can do to expand our reach,” Master of the The Academy of Medicine Malaysia (AMM) Dr Rosmawati Mohamed told a panel last Sunday while discussing building capacity and partnerships for health advocacy in Malaysia.
“A specialist, or health professionals in general, should view advocacy as an integral part of what they do, either individually or collectively, to influence change.”
The Academy of Medicine Malaysia (AMM) and the Faculty of Medicine of University of Malaya organised a panel discussion last Sunday on building capacity and partnerships for health advocacy in Malaysia. The panelists were Dr Rosmawati Mohamed, Dr Feisul Mustapha, Dr Pascale Allotey, and moderated by Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud.
Dr Feisul, who is the deputy director of the disease control division under the Ministry of Health (MOH), said most health advocates across the world come from civil society, but Malaysia lacks advocates from civil society and grassroots in health care issues.
He said this happens in Malaysia because there is no systematic approach to develop non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in health.
“If you look at developed nations, the strong advocates can be from civil society, and not professional associations. Like the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the advocates are not the virologist, but the people who are living with HIV.”
Dr Rosmawati highlighted that building capacity in a country and organisation can be done using the three Cs — connect, communicate and collaborate, which can be done best via campaigns.
“From an evidence point of view, the campaigns that we have including all these forms of collaboration and partnerships and having the communications both by the social and the mainstream media have been the best way to build capacity on health advocacy,” Dr Rosmawati told the panel.
When asked if there are any areas on which Malaysia can improve in terms of health advocacy, Dr Allotey, who is the director of the United Nations University International Institute of Global Health, said: “Anyone can do better. My sense is that it is not taken seriously as an area that is recognised and I don’t think it is just in Malaysia.”
Dr Feisul, who also agreed on the point that health advocacy is a field that is under-recognised in Malaysia, told the panel that effective public health advocacy requires specific skill sets that can be developed and trained.
“If we want Malaysians to realise that the wider determinants of health have a bigger impact on the quality of life and health outcomes, then one of the key action points would be a stronger and more strategic public health advocacy,” said Dr Feisul.
He said one of the examples of health advocacy is having a social media presence, noting that there are many social media champions with many followers among specialists and clinicians.
“It is something that you develop over time and you have to be passionate about it.”
Dr Rosmawati emphasised that the first step to health advocacy is by identifying partners with a common ground, but also pointed out that sometimes the differences in partners may actually bring out the best in the relationship and give a win-win situation.
“You may have people that may have different ideas from you and they are going to look like bad ideas but sometimes these provide the solution to what you are trying to do. Look for the common interest and work towards it,” the AMM master told the panel.
Dr Awang Bulgiba, who is also an AMM council member, asked Dr Feisul how does he try to effect change through partnerships considering he is still in MOH, as the latter may not be able to do things directly. Civil servants are generally prohibited from speaking publicly without permission from their superiors.
“If you have to ask, most likely the answer will be ‘no’ on my part. Unfortunately, this has proven to be a hindrance to most of my colleagues,” Dr Feisul replied.
However, Dr Feisul pointed out that advocacy does not necessarily mean direct work.
“If you do know who the influencers are, it is worth while approaching the influencers and providing the information to the influencers.”
Dr Rosmawati told the panel that any advocacy should also have an objective or a target with a measurable outcome. However, she did say that measuring the success of partnership is a difficult process.
“But if you manage to get everyone committed to a shared vision, I think that is one step to the right direction.”