Column - Are Malaysians an unhealthy lot?

THE answer to that question is obvious. Generally speaking, that is. Take a look at the ubiquitous hospitals in the country and you can see that they are always overcrowded.

Government hospitals especially are about the only place that don't stop operating even for a second, tending to people seeking treatment for all sorts of medical conditions.

To appreciate the workload of hospital staff from doctors down to the menial workers, just drop by at any of these hospitals during your free time or look around whenever you visit relatives or friends who have been warded.

I do this now and then especially as my office is just a stone's throw away from Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL), the more than a century-old facility that's the biggest general hospital in the world.

In a previous column, I described HKL – and by the same token other general hospitals – as the finest government institution where sick people are treated and lives are saved because of the sheer dedication and sacrifices of staff who work well beyond their call of duty.

The HKL alone has nearly 10,000 staff. They are truly the country's unsung heroes.

Maintaining these hospitals is one of the biggest financial headaches for the government yearly especially during times of reduced earnings with the sharp fall in global petroleum prices.

But to the credit of the people running our Treasury, Malaysia's healthcare service, which is among the world's best and definitely the cheapest or virtually free, remains intact. This is something all citizens must count their blessings for.

Even the United States, one of the most developed nations, is still grappling with its healthcare system.

The other day, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam revealed that it cost the government about RM2 billion annually just to pay for medicines for its 1.6 million civil servants. And if you add the costs of their hospitalisation and after-care, it's much more.

Imagine the cost for the general population at large in a nation of 31 million.

We are not even talking about the amount of money insurance companies paid private hospitals to cover the cost of treating patients with policies.

It's public knowledge that private hospital bills can cost a bomb but to avoid the long queues at government hospitals, health insurance has become a necessity for many people.

Private hospitals, too, play an important role as the queues would be even more intolerable without them.

For example, a very close relative had to wait for nine hours recently to get warded at a government hospital in the Klang Valley as the beds at the hospital were fully occupied.

To help reduce such huge mandatory budget allocations, we the citizens must do some soul-searching to stay as healthy as we can. It's obvious that things cannot remain as they are.

There is a critical need to place a higher priority on the preventive aspects of healthcare as opposed to the costly curative side.

If more effort was put into prevention, then the amount spent on treatment would automatically be more manageable. As the saying goes, "prevention is better than cure".

Datuk Dr Balwant Singh Bains, who runs a chain of physiotherapy clinics, told me Malaysia's preventive care is far behind time.

He said poor eating habits, eateries that operate at uncivilised hours, the quality of food, lack of sleep and exercise or wrong exercise made people sick and contributed to the long queues in hospitals.

Bains, who is also a royal physiotherapist, said media hype that Malaysia is a food paradise did not help to keep people healthy.

"Medical providers are acting more as agents to pharmaceutical companies," he said.

He blames the popular teh tarik outlets for contributing to the generally poor health of millions of Malaysians. Teh tarik has a very high content of sweetened creamers or condensed milk which is basically sugar with hardly any milk.

In other words, the teh tarik culture, which we sometimes are proud to call a Malaysian "invention", is bad for health as it leads to diabetes and high blood pressure.

According to Bains, more than 25% of Malaysians are not even aware that they have diabetes and only discover it incidentally.

Bains said a large percentage of the stroke patients treated at his clinics admitted that they are regular teh tarik drinkers.

Restaurants and food outlets that operate after 10pm have encouraged Malaysian youths especially to stay out late and this leads to eating at odd hours when they should be in bed sleeping.

"This leads to social ills and for the youth to indulge in drugs and smoking. People indulge in unnecessary eating during the wee hours," said Bains.

"If this is stopped by the government, the majority of the youth would spend quality time with their families.

"While the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development encourages family unity, the city and town councils keep issuing licences for night food outlets.

"Any business for that matter that is done by stealing the sleeping hours of mankind is an evil act."

I must record my appreciation to Bains for his valuable words of wisdom which hopefully will shake us up to stay healthy and help bring down the rising cost of healthcare.

If not, one day these costs might become unsustainable.