Don’t compromise healthcare for tourist dollars

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and other concerned groups have protested the Health Ministry’s move to allow healthcare services to be promoted in order to boost the tourism industry.

Finally, some medical professionals are coming out publicly in opposition of medical or health tourism. At the Health Systems in Transition workshop, health experts have warned that the overall quality of healthcare in the country will suffer if medical tourism is allowed to sap medical staff in public hospitals.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Trude Bennet of the North Carolina’s Chapel Hill University was quoted saying that “the glamour and profitability of medical tourism tended to crowd out public health”. She went on to say that “Government resources such as land, financial subsidies and tax incentives tend to be diverted to start up private facilities with high technology. Meanwhile public health services and primary care will be left to languish”.

Well-known University Malaya Medical Centre infectious disease head, Prof. Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman has rightly pointed out that the lure of medical tourism could further lead to a brain drain, resulting in the lack of senior doctors and specialists to mentor younger medical staff. This in turn would lead to a low quality of staff in the public sector, and eventually, those who leave for the private sector would also be of low calibre.

University Sains Malaysia (USM) Women’s Development Research Centre director, Prof. Datin Dr. Rashidah Shuib stated that the Government’s policy on medical tourism should be debated and that there “must be some guiding principles and not just wealth creation”.

CAP is concerned about the effect the continued emphasis on medical tourism by the Health Ministry will have on the Malaysian public. At the moment, government hospitals are understaffed and local patients have to endure long waits. These patients sometimes have no choice but to seek treatment at private healthcare facilities. This is usually in spite of the fact that the charges at these facilities are something they can ill-afford.

As patient load and services at private healthcare facilities increase due to aggressive promotion of services, charges for treatment will go up. The private sector will also have increased needs for medical staff and will move to attract staff from government hospitals. At the moment, government hospitals are in no position to match the remunerations offered.

It was once reported that the Health Ministry recognised the need for efficient enforcement to ensure that all parties kept within the prescribed ethical guidelines for advertising. However, even with the laws to restrict advertising, there have still been numerous occasions when advertisers flouted the law. CAP has had to bring some of these cases to the authorities’ attention for action to be taken. Are the Health Ministry officials in a position to monitor that the advertisers stay within the ambit of the law?

Other unethical practices are also bound to increase as medical personnel pay more attention to the profit-making potential of healthcare.

Healthcare should not be treated as a business. CAP calls on the Ministry of Health to halt the practice of encouraging medical tourism. Great emphasis should be placed on addressing the shortfalls that are ailing our present healthcare system. The needs of local people should come first.

The practice of having private wings in government hospitals should also be scrapped.

Press Statement, 2 May 2009