Bring down healthcare costs

AS Malaysians gear up for the May 9 general election, one favour that I strongly feel that we all owe to the nation is to help reduce the spiralling costs of government-run services.

It's in the Malaysian DNA to take all these services too much for granted without caring two hoots about how expensive they are to maintain.

And only those among us who have been to countries that are less fortunate would have that sense of "repentance".

I'm talking about the exponential costs of our public healthcare system, recognised as one of the world's best provided at government clinics and hospitals spread out all over the country, even in remote areas.

One has to just pay a token RM1 to consult a medical officer at the outpatient wing at these facilities and without fail leave with medicine to treat one's health condition.

Hospitals could be regarded as one of the most common landmarks in Malaysia and although we can be proud and even thankful for their ubiquitous existence, the more we have such facilities, the more we have to face the reality that generally Malaysians are not leading a healthy lifestyle.

Just look at the queue lines and congestion at these hospitals and their overworked doctors, nurses and staff.

Because hospitals are in use every single second of the day without a moment's break, the Health Ministry faces yet another financial headache – having to revisit the maintenance side of these over-used buildings following fires that broke out at a few of them that even have cost the lives of several patients.

The ministry's annual budget is normally the second biggest after that of education and questions could be asked if our hospitals continue to be filled to the brim: Are the costs sustainable over the long run especially if there is an economic downturn?

It's very much doable for Malaysians to uphold our good citizen's responsibility by being healthy by following the norms of a healthy lifestyle. A common advice from your doctor is to eat right and exercise regularly.

Because eating – and not necessarily eating the right stuff – is very much our culture. And the outcome is all too obvious in that Malaysia has among other things, one of the world's highest rates of diabetes and obesity.

A recent revelation that it costs the government some RM2 billion annually for medicines to treat its 1.6 million civil servants alone once again drives home the message that if the more educated workforce like the civil servants are unhealthy, one can't imagine how much money goes into managing the health of the public at large.

All this while, the highly over-worked ministry has been concerned more with the curative aspects of healthcare and doesn't have the space or resources to look at the preventive side.

I would certainly advocate that some emphasis be shifted to prevention in the sense that if more and more Malaysians are aware and adopt a healthier lifestyle, at the end of the day, we can expect to see the ministry spending much less on the expensive curative side of healthcare.

Some friends, who are doctors, say our healthcare system could more appropriately be labelled as sick care.

In simple analogy, if the ministry were to spend one ringgit on preventive healthcare, it perhaps could save RM50 or more when there are fewer sick people.

We are also paying a high price for our "sweet" lifestyle. By this I mean there's too much sugar in most of the food that we consume, especially among young children.

You only have to visit school canteens to understand better what I mean.

School canteens are mainly selling what's commonly known as junk food especially canned or bottled drinks that have a very high sugar content.

The Education Ministry must clamp down on this because according to reports, we have far too many obese children.

One of the biggest culprits aggravating our healthcare costs is teh tarik, the sweetened milk tea sometimes called Malaysia's national drink.

A prominent physiotherapy clinic operator told me that most of his stroke patients have one common denominator – they love teh tarik, which he says is one beverage that has a high sugar content.

Just look around, we find people drinking teh tarik in the wee hours of the morning at 24-hour restaurants.

It's time and in fact long overdue for local government authorities to revisit their policy of allowing 24-hour eateries that only serve to make Malaysians to end up in the crowded hospitals.

I could sense that any health minister would take pride in announcing that yet another hospital would be built in another corner of the country.

This shows the government's concern for the people's health. Well and good but hospitals normally cost around RM1 billion each or more.

I have a contrarian view on this. We should take pride when we achieve the objective of bringing our healthcare costs down despite an increase in population. This should be our target.

It might seem easier said than done but I believe it's doable with Malaysians practising a healthier lifestyle.