National Patients’ Safety Council – to protect patients’  interests or to help government avoid its healthcare  responsibility to the public?

Media Statement
Lim Kit Siang

(Penang, Friday): The Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng, announced yesterday that the Cabinet had approved the establishment of a National Patients’ Safety Council to work closely with the Health Ministry to develop a better healthcare system.

He said the function of the council is to identify ways of overcoming human or mechanical errors under the present healthcare system.  He said that in 2001, there were more than 66 million attendances at government hospitals, clinics and dental clinics nationwide. Despite maintaining high standards of healthcare, there were still several adverse incidents reported.

The Council will be headed by the director-general of health and would include senior doctors, representatives from the Malaysian Medical Association, Association of Private Hospitals, directors of university hospitals and other medical professionals.

The announcement of the establishment of a National Patients’ Safety Council should be good news for the public, in particular the poor and low-income, who have to go to public  clinics and hospitals for treatment because they cannot afford the costs of private healthcare.

However, skepticism about the commitment of the Health Minister to the affordable  healthcare of Malaysians have never been so deep in the 45 years of nationhood, especially as a result of the mishandling of   the worst dengue epidemic in the nation’s history - which is still causing unnecessary and avoidable deaths with the Health Minister refusing to release true, accurate and timely data about the incidence of dengue cases and deaths to save lives.

Just before the Chinese New Year, the Sun (January 30,  2003) carried the front-page headline “Dengue blackout – Ministry DG: Public need not know the details” for its report which quoted the Director-General of Health Tan Sri Mohamad Taha Ariff as declaring that “the public do not have the right to know the seriousness of the dengue outbreak” and that “it is not necessary for Malaysians to know any details” about incidence of dengue cases and dengue fatalities or whether Malaysia is suffering from the worst dengue epidemic in the nation’s history and which is raging on unchecked, increasing the toll of  unnecessary and avoidable deaths.

Last week, Chua Jui Meng made the shocking statement that long queues and waiting periods in government clinics and hospitals will be permanent features in the country’s healthcare system, and that if people cannot wait, they will have to turn to private clinics or hospitals.  He said the situation is the same in any other part of the world and anyone who expects fast service can seek treatment elsewhere.

Chua’s callous statement was most outrageous, expecially as it was in response to  a local press report  of the sufferings of many elderly people in Penang  who had to wait in long queues at government hospitals, and who had urged the authorities to create special lanes and counters for them.  

Chua’s response  reminded Malaysians  of the  infamous remark by the French Queen Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution that if the poor “have no bread, let them eat cake”!

With such a background, Malaysians are entitled to ask whether the National Patients’ Safety Council is being established  to protect patients’  interests or to help the government avoid its healthcare  responsibility to the public?

If the National Patients’ Safety Council is to protect the interests of the patients against human or mechanical errors of the healthcare system, why is there no public interest representation unrelated to the medical profession on the Council  to represent  the suffering “patients”?

A Council whose representation is fully constituted by medical professionals, whether public or private, raises the question as to whether it is to protect the medical profession or  the government when it should protect the “patients” population.  

Furthermore, such a composition of an all-medical representation will easily lend itself to a conspiracy of silence against the non-medical public, as evident in the manner in which the Health Ministry has received the tacit support of the Malaysian Medical Association to deny information to the public about the worst dengue epidemic in the nation’s history – although MMA should know that this is the major cause why there is no nation-wide alert and awareness of the dengue epidemic and why it is raging on unchecked  causing unnecessary and avoidable deaths.

Before the Chinese New Year last Wednesday (29th January), I said that the number of death toll from dengue for the first 23 days of this year is at least 13 cases – with four cases in Ipoh, one case in Kuantan and Kota Bahru each, one case in Port Dickson, four cases in Kuala Lumpur and two cases in Johore.

I have now come across two other cases of dengue deaths in January, bringing the total of dengue fatalities  to my knowledge to at least 15 for the first month of the new year -  Maruthu Pandian, 37, from Rasah Jaya, Seremban,  died of dengue in the Seremban General Hospital on 23rd January  and  a  Bahau medical student,   Chai Moy Far, 21,  (f) , of  Taylor’s College, Kuala Lumpur,  who   died of dengue on  31st January, 2003. 

The latest known deaths of  Maruthu Pandian from Seremban and Chai Moy Far from Bahau – bringing to a total of at least 15 dengue deaths in the first month of the year - and the continued raging unchecked of the worst dengue epidemic in the nation’s history  cannot but raise profound questions as to whether the National Patients’ Safety Council is to protect patients’ interests or to help the government avoid its healthcare responsibility to the public.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman