KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 13 – Two government backbenchers have come out in defence of Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa, who is facing angry health care workers demanding for better working conditions in the public health service.
Ipoh Timor MP Howard Lee Chuan How pointed out that Dr Zaliha initiated a health care audit as early as her first week in office that Lee was certain would be part of the Health White Paper – a document of long-term health care reforms that Dr Zaliha promised to table in Parliament in the middle of the year.
“Addressing the legacy mess within the system is a monumental task without the inertia and resistance from powerful forces within the health service,” Lee said in a series of tweets yesterday.
“With it, the punitive culture of fear hampers even the first step of solving the problem – admitting there is one.”
The freshman MP from the DAP said it is not only the health care system that is “on the brink of breakdown”, but also the mental health, wellbeing, and future of many health care workers.
“I’ll be seeing YBM @Zaliha_DrZ whom I know is doing everything and more to solve this crisis. I’ll be offering my views, intel and assistance in addressing this impossible crisis,” Lee said.
The government MP also said he would not support any “unannounced” strike by government health care workers (HCWs), “not the magnitude and depth of the one I am hearing”.
“But until we stop asking HCW to be treated badly in order to treat others, we CANNOT blame them. Even angels fall when pushed over the edge,” said Lee, who is also a member of the DAP central executive committee.
“Health care authorities and workforce should symbiotically strive for betterment, but it seems more like authorities VS workforce with the latter on the losing end, permanently, because of the impossible and imbalanced power dynamics. Even media practitioners feel the wrath.”
Hartal Doktor Kontrak (HDK), an informal group representing contract doctors in the public sector, issued a call last month for government doctors, who are willing to “sacrifice whatever it takes”, to join their movement. HDK, which organised a one-day walkout from work among contract doctors in 2021, did not specify if it was organising another strike.
Reformasi Kesihatan Malaysia with the Twitter account @reformMYhealth – whose profile describes the account as being managed by a “group of ‘doktor tenat’ working in government hospitals” – tweeted yesterday a picture of The Star’s front-page cover on June 10, 1977 with the headline: “Doctors told: End boycott”.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” warned Reformasi Kesihatan Malaysia.
CodeBlue’s survey last month among more than 1,600 government health care workers from every state and federal territory in the country in both permanent and contract positions – predominantly Ministry of Health (MOH) staff and cutting across professions – showed that 95 per cent believe the public health care system is currently in crisis.
More than half said they would go on strike, while seven in 10 said they were currently thinking of quitting the government health service.
The majority of respondents said they were overworked, underpaid, burned out, and insecure about their career progression. A whopping 83 per cent lack trust in the government to address issues in the public health care system.
In interviews with CodeBlue and verbatim comments in the poll, multiple government doctors, pharmacists, dentists, nurses, and medical assistants (both contract and permanent staff) complained about severe understaffing in the public health service, not receiving commensurate pay for their heavy workloads (or even being denied certain on-call claims), and being burdened with too many key performance indicators (KPIs) and extra services that they have to provide to patients.
Subsequent to CodeBlue’s survey, many health care workers have related personal stories on Twitter about multiple resignations of coworkers, doctors being paid just RM6 per hour (RM200 pay for 33 hours of work), and being “triple tired” from working a minimum of 14 hours a day with “minimal” pay.
On Facebook, in response to Dr Zaliha’s plan to meet hospital directors, a government doctor suggested opening up a Google Sheet instead for specialists to provide their responses on deficiencies in health care facilities, without the health minister needing to “tour the entire country”. Many complained that the top management in public hospitals tends to hide problems.
Like Lee, Bukit Bendera MP Syerleena Abdul Rashid defended Dr Zaliha’s response to health care workers’ complaints about the public health service reaching crisis levels.
“In order to improve, one must always find reasons why something is failing. In this case, admitting that there is a crisis will be the first step forward. I believe the Health Minister has admitted this (based on her social media responses),” Syerleena, who is from the DAP, told CodeBlue.
Dr Zaliha, however, has yet to publicly state whether she agrees with health care workers’ sentiments in CodeBlue’s survey that the public health care system is in crisis – simply describing it in a tweet last February 1 as a “current situation”.
In her online posts over the past fortnight, the health minister also did not acknowledge complaints by MOH staff about bad working conditions that are driving many to resign from the health service. Dr Zaliha, a first-term MP from PKR, also has yet to issue a press statement or hold a press conference on the matter.
The health minister met with the Public Service Department (JPA) last week to find solutions to “a few issues, particularly those related to positions in MOH”, as well as career pathways, but did not specify, in her tweets, the number of positions she is seeking or the scale of health care worker shortages across professions in proportion to the actual need in the service.
“On a personal level, I have experienced how bad the public health care system really is. Overcrowded, understaffed, equipment constantly under repair or broken, making this unavailable for public use,” Syerleena told CodeBlue. “All of these need to be addressed immediately”.
The freshman MP also expressed support for bonuses and pay hikes for health care workers.
“On another note, there is a definite need to address issues pertaining to contract medical officers. These are dedicated individuals who have given so much for the system, they too have rights and should be given fair treatment.”