GOOD health is a core entitlement and a most basic need. It is thus a universal priority, with such standards as the World Health Organisation’s goal of a 1:600 ratio of doctors to citizens for individual countries.
However, progress towards such goals is never guaranteed. Sometimes, as even Malaysia has experienced, there can be reverses.
Our country’s ratio in 2000 was 1:905; today, a full decade later, it has dropped to 1:940. This can be due as much to the retirement, passing and emigration of doctors as to an expanding population, probably both.
The ratios for Sabah and Sarawak are even more depressing, being 1:2,248 and 1:1,709 respectively.
Even with optimism that Malaysia can and will achieve the WHO standard, the inevitable question is when?
The Health Ministry says this will be by 2015. That means after 10 years (2000 to 2010) of falling behind, the ratio of doctors to the population will reverse course and meet or surpass the WHO ratio in five years or less.
It would be good if Malaysians can rely on more than hope and faith for that to happen. Meanwhile, it is imperative for policymakers to understand that more than just crude numbers are needed to determine a nation’s health standing.
Despite various training institutes operating full-time to churn out medical graduates each year, at least as important are the quality of their training, the extent of their supervision, and the nature and power of their motivation.
We trust that the present doctor shortage can be addressed without resorting to importing doctors. Let qualified foreign spouses work unhindered, and attract Malaysian doctors abroad to return.
Medical trainees and practitioners should remember that unlike most other professions, theirs is a highly exacting one in which errors can cost lives.
It is also a calling that serves the needy in their hour of greatest need, not a lucrative occupation for accumulating personal wealth and status.
From the few doctors prepared to serve in Sabah and Sarawak, despite the greater need for their services there, self-interests seem to trump societal requirements.
Clearly, the attitude and aptitude of the needed professionals are more important than their plain numbers.