Public healthcare in Malaysia is understaffed – yet ministry is still not hiring permanent staff

AFP Relaxnews

I REFER to the letter “Case for absorbing contract doctors as permanent staff” by Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye (The Star, Jan 14).

I am impressed that this issue was brought up by such a towering figure in our society. The initial part of his letter is rather thought provoking: “Last year, a total of 55,981 medical officers held permanent positions in the Health Ministry while another 23,096 were on contract. So if the government could support 79,077 medical officers in that year (2022), why can’t it continue to support this number as permanent staff with a slightly higher budget?

I won’t mince words: I believe that the Health Ministry has become that notorious towkay who always tries to undercut and underpay workers. Let me give you real life examples that illustrate this – these are well-known to most in the medical fraternity.

During the first wave of Covid-19 cases in 2020, junior medical officers (MOs) from all over the Klang Valley and as far north as Ipoh were transferred to Hospital Sungai Buloh, Selangor, to help with the pandemic efforts. Usually if government servants are transferred, they are able to claim transport and moving costs and even hotel stays up to five days while looking for accommodation. But the junior MOs from Ipoh were told they could not claim travel costs as they are contract officers.

After six months, when the first wave had died down, the junior MOs were transferred out from Hospital Sungai Buloh to other states as the ministry figured the Covid-19 threat was over. Some of them were even given postings as far away as Sabah and Sarawak. Again, they were told they could not claim transfer costs as they are contract officers. This would mean that an MO from Ipoh would have worked in at least two different states within a year, uprooting and moving twice, but did not receive a single sen of assistance from the Health Ministry.

On top of that, these MOs were getting a grade UD41 salary until recently when they were promised a grade increase. Unfortunately, the increase is only up to UD43, which is lower than the UD44 grade pay that permanent MOs were getting recently.

And the time-based promotion that had been practiced previously for doctors in government service has now been thrown out the window. Before, after five years in service, an MO would be promoted to the UD48 grade. However, the current lot of MOs were informed that this does not apply to them, so after five years they are being absorbed as permanent staff at only grade UD43. When questioned, ministry officials said time-based promotion does not apply to them as – you guessed it – they were contract officers before.

So in one fell swoop, they are being denied seniority and salary and benefits increases despite working equally as long and as much as permanent MOs in delivering the nation’s public healthcare services.

Is this how the ministry is trying to save costs? This is no longer penny pinching, but daylight robbery.

It is a known fact that our healthcare system is falling apart. Most healthcare workers are overworked and stressed. And of course, everyone's heard the news and seen the pictures of Emergency Departments bursting at the seams that have gone viral on social media. So the government seems to be trying to reassure us with the opening of Hospital Cyberjaya and Hospital Pendang. But wait, there's a catch.

Previously, prior to Hospital Shah Alam opening, a core team of specialists, MOs, nurses and medical assistants were identified as staff for the hospital; the MOs, nurses and medical assistants were initially placed in other Klang Valley hospitals to train and be prepared to work at the new hospital, some up to a year prior to the hospital opening. However, for both Hospital Cyberjaya and Hospital Pendang, there has been no core team formation or core staff identified. Currently, Hospital Cyberjaya is not even running at 20% capacity because it is severely understaffed.

So, obviously, staffing is a major issue and the ministry has been doing a terrible job of optimising manpower requirements.

I can assure you that if all 20,000-plus contract MOs are absorbed as permanent staff by the Health Ministry, none of them is going to be sitting around and shaking legs because the current situation is such that every single one of them will be required to keep services running, just as they are doing currently – and after that the ministry would still be understaffed.

It is high time that a Healthcare Services Commission be formed to optimise healthcare human resources, manage wages and promotions and upgrade services as well as determine public hospital fees as the RM1 model is simply not sustainable.


Kuala Lumpur

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