KUALA LUMPUR, May 9 – The death of a Penang Hospital houseman has reinvigorated national debate on what is alleged to be a longstanding toxic culture of workplace bullying of junior doctors.
The Melaka and Penang state governments are attempting to curb such problematic practices in Ministry of Health (MOH) hospitals where medical graduates do their training, even though house officers (HOs) are under federal employ and jurisdiction.
Melaka state health and anti-drugs executive councillor Dr Muhamad Akmal Saleh gave a “stern warning” to medical officers and specialists that he would take action if they did not stop bullying housemen.
“If there are any HOs in the state of Melaka who are facing horrific situations of bullying and humiliation, you can inform me directly so that I can investigate and take action if it really happened because, as long as I’m the Melaka exco of health and anti-drugs, I will not allow any HOs to be bullied so terribly in the state of Melaka,” Dr Akmal said on his Facebook page last Saturday.
“Teaching and training is not a licence for bullying without considering their feelings.”
The Merlimau state assemblyman urged junior doctors to contact him on his Facebook page or to meet him directly for any complaints.
Dr Akmal, who runs a clinic in Bandar Baru Merlimau, said he went through the difficulties of practising medicine during his two-year housemanship in Ampang Hospital.
“Although it was a bitter experience, not a single one of my seniors, medical officers, or specialists have ever once bullied or humiliated me.”
Penang state executive councillor for agro-tech and food security, rural development and health Dr Norlela Ariffin said last Friday that she has received suggestions for solutions from current Malaysian specialists practising in the country and overseas on the issue of housemen bullying.
She said she wanted to hold three meetings on the issue – the first with current trainee and junior doctors to officially notify issues and suggestions for “real change” to Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and the state executive council.
She proposed a second meeting with hospital directors, department directors, and heads of department, as well as a third with the state health director and the Health director-general deputies of medicine and public health.
Dr Norlela said the Penang state health department told her that these issues would be discussed by the independent task force announced by Khairy to investigate the April 17 death of a 25-year-old Penang Hospital houseman caused by a fall.
She posted some of the suggestions and comments made to her by anonymous doctors, such as: “Putrajaya or lawmakers will never find a solution. The MOs (medical officers) of today bullying HOs were themselves an HO a few years back. Until subordinates are treated like a colleague rather than a slave, no law will be able to change anything.”
“The young housemen are overworked, abused, bullied, shouted at, things thrown at them by MOs and even nurses. They cannot speak up because it will go into their personal file and hence no permanent job chances in KKM (Ministry of Health),” Dr Norlela quoted another as saying.
“So they must tahan all the sh*t thrown at them. They cannot take it sometimes. New housemen have no off-day for one month. How hard it must have been to study to be a doctor.”
Another doctor told Dr Norlela about bullying: “Name calling (idiot, moron, f****r), tie-pulling, body shaming, physical and mental abuse — I have seen it all. Bullying still happens in the whole world and across all professions but what sets us apart is the enablers – people who stand silently and let things happen – and lack of acknowledgement, education, prevention and support by all concerned parties.”
Dr Norlela also shared a doctor’s allegation that “we doctors seldom care whether our juniors have had their meal breaks”, unlike nurses who have protected meal breaks.
Yet another said, “I can’t lecture my children that when I was born, we did not even have a ceiling fan in our house and how fridges, washing machines and air-conditioners came only much later in our lives.
“In the same way, senior doctors have to stop talking about their ‘old days’ where they were meant to start work at 6am and how they took care of the whole department with just two house officers. We owe it to our seniors though because they did a huge sacrifice due to the difficult situation back then.
“Any doctor who survives more than 10 years in the public service needs a medal (more so the ones who started working in the 80’s and 90’s), but let bygones be bygones.”