It's all too easy to neglect digestive health

  • Wellness
  • Sunday, 29 May 2016

Based on current trends, the knowledge and awareness among Malaysians on digestive health isn't up to the standard of a developed nation. Photo: Shutterstock

The Malaysian chapter of World Digestive Health Day 2016 was celebrated last weekend at the Vita-gen Healthy Digestive Roadshow held at Sunway Pyramid, Selangor.

The five-day roadshow was organised by the Digestive Health Malaysia Society (DHM) as part of their effort to educate the public by engaging with them on a more personalised level, thus, empowering them to better care for their digestive health.

Consultant gastroenterologist and DHM deputy chairman Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali shares his views on various topics related to digestive health.

So, how does our nation fare when it comes to digestive health?

Just like the saying, “out of sight, out of mind”, many Malaysians are guilty of neglecting their digestive health.

This situation has been spiralling out of control, leading to a worrying rise in digestive disorders in Malaysia.

Based on current trends, the knowledge and awareness among Malaysians are still not up to the standard of a developed nation.

We are heading towards the status of a developed country in 2020, so we should also have a corresponding knowledge and awareness of digestive disorders among the public.

Public awareness roadshows such as this Vitagen Healthy Digestive Roadshow, are one of the right platforms for creating greater awareness among the public and to help educate them so that they know what are the signs or symptoms that would be suggestive that they may have digestive disorders.

It’s all about educating the rakyat, that’s why DHM chose the tagline “Educate, Engage and Empower”.

The aim for the coming years is to get high-risk patients screened for colon cancer and other common digestive diseases.

To achieve this, we will need to have strategic, smart partnerships with various stakeholders, in particular, the private sector, the Health Ministry, as well as other expert bodies.

DIgestive Health Day.
Health Ministry medical development division director Datuk Dr Azman Abu Bakar (centre), checking out the DHAT, along with (from right) DHM deputy chairman Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali, DHM council members Dr Sheikh Anwar, Datin Dr Liew Yin Mei and HKL personnel Fazly. Photo: The Star/Raymond Ooi

A recent news report revealed that 80-90% of patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer who seek treatment are already at their third or fourth stage of cancer. Why is this so?

We must understand that only 9% of patients present with stage one, which means that around 91% are at stage two, three or four, which requires more treatment and results in reduced life expectancy.

These patients come in late because of many factors: they ignore the symptoms for too long, they may have been misdiagnosed with other diseases such as infective colitis (infection in the bowel) or haemorrhoids, or they may not even be aware that they have a family history of colon cancer (this will increase the risk of having colon cancer), especially if it was undiagnosed.

Most of the time, we want to see these patients quickly – the earlier, the better.

The majority of colon cancer first appears as polyps, and these polyps seldom have any symptoms unless they are very big or are ulcerated and bleeding.

While polyps themselves are not cancerous per se, they are a risk factor as they can become cancerous.

Polyps tend to accumulate with age, so be diligent with your screening. Our aim is to detect the polyps with screening and to remove them.

How has the Internet affected your relationship with your patients?

First, we have to be cautious with “Dr Google”. As a healthcare professional, we want to educate the public, but we want to do it right.

Not everything that they find on the Internet should be trusted, especially if it is found on a questionable website.

It is in their best interests to consult with the appropriate expert in the field, e.g. talk to a bowel specialist if you have a bowel problem.

Yes, you can Google the signs and symptoms, but the next step is very important – it involves how to approach it, who you approach and how you can address the problem. Never depend on self-diagnosis!

If you feel that something is not right, such as constant stomach discomfort or weight loss that happens for no reason, consult an expert.

If you suffer from rectal bleeding, don’t assume that it is haemorrhoids.

What are some of the strategies involved in DHM’s mission to generate greater awareness on the importance of caring for your digestive health?

The primary strategy is to use DHM as a vehicle to educate the community.

This is not something that I can achieve alone, and I will certainly need the support of like-minded fellow colleagues, media and the use of social media to create awareness.

We need to reach out and educate the community from a very young age with the message that they need to eat healthily, live healthily and exercise regularly.

While we are looking at attacking this problem at its roots, we are not forgetting the older generation, because worldwide, we are all an ageing society.

We want to prevent common digestive illnesses from exacerbating into more serious conditions by addressing the early signs and symptoms.

This also makes sense from a financial standpoint as it will save each individual a lot of money in terms of treatment.

There is very clear scientific evidence pointing at chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol to be ticking time-bombs leading towards the development of various digestive health disorders.

What are some of the ideas that you would like to implement to establish DHM’s role and relevancy in the eyes of the Malaysian public?

While I do have a lot of innovative ideas, we have to go back to the basics with our rakyat, until the standards of public awareness are successfully raised.

The involvement of scientists with specific research into colon cancer is very important, such as looking at the role of specific bad bacteria and genetic mutations that could potentially cause colon cancer.

We need to have more educational messages that focus on inculcating healthy lifestyle habits among the rakyat.

Unfortunately, many Malaysians are more interested in buying a house or a new car, without realising that our true investment towards wealth is none other than maintaining good health.

I think that it would be interesting, for example, to have a debate, highlight patient support groups or allow cancer survivors to share their stories about the various difficulties they face when dealing with their cancer, which gives them a chance to tell the public that, “Hey, I forgot to do this early and I don’t want this to happen to you, so please do your health screening.”

Do you have any words of advice for the public?

Stay healthy, eat healthy. Love your guts as you love yourself. Please see your doctor before you get sick.

If you are in your 50s, regardless of how healthy you are, please get a thorough health check and do it regularly.

Why wait till you have a problem when you can nip it in the bud?

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