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Private hospitals turning away respiratory patients? Despicable!

Image by CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM - This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #23312 - Wikimedia Commons

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Selfish behaviour on the part of private hospitals and laboratories should not be tolerated during this public health emergency, writes Rani Rasiah.

The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) is shocked beyond words to hear of some well-known private hospitals turning away sick people with respiratory symptoms for fear these patients might be infected with Covid-19.

The standard response of these hospitals and their doctors and health staff has been to advise patients with respiratory symptoms such as cough and breathing difficulties to go to the nearest government hospital, despite it being common knowledge that the government hospitals are now under immense pressure because of the Covid-19 epidemic.

We are well aware of what drives private healthcare and how much a part of the corporate world these corporate healthcare providers are.

But these are no ordinary times. Covid-19, still an unknown virus, is tearing through the world, infecting hundreds of thousands and so far killing 16,550 people. Everywhere, it has overwhelmed or threatens to overwhelm public hospitals that are major battlefronts in this war.

The Malaysian government has assigned 26 public hospitals plus one university hospital for the frontline job of treating Covid-19 positive patients.

As elsewhere, the Malaysian public healthcare system has suffered over the past two decades from underfunding, resulting in chronic under-equipment and the steady loss of large numbers of senior doctors to an increasingly robust private healthcare sector.

Public hospitals were already bursting at the seams even before the Covid-19 epidemic, with overflowing wards and congested emergency departments. Now they are taking on the full weight of managing the Covid-19 cases who, apart from being very ill, represent a significant health hazard to all the staff handling them.

Fighting the virus entails the urgent need for special wards, increased intensive care unit (ICU) space and equipment such as ventilators and oxygen supply equipment, not to mention the procurement of protective gear for the staff.

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It is under these trying circumstances that our public sector doctors, nurses and workers are putting their lives on the line, valiantly fighting this lethal terror and remaining steadfast. This despite the fact that daily more and more public healthcare personnel are contracting the virus.

What is the role of private hospitals at this time?

The government has already clarified that all patients with confirmed Covid-19 infection are to be transferred to dedicated wards in the 26 designated government hospitals.

Surely, in this situation, private hospitals can play a role by setting up special wards with facilities to isolate patients with respiratory symptoms until their tests come back negative. This will help relieve some of the pressure on our over-burdened public sector.

Unfortunately, there are still many private hospitals continuing with a “business as usual” attitude by turning away patients who are not profitable to treat or who will mean extra costs for them – in the form of spending on opening up separate wards, dedicating equipment and buying protective equipment for their staff.

Private hospitals also obviously fear other financial implications arising from staff inevitably getting exposed to Covid-19, resulting in the need to allocate time for quarantine and the prospects of having to pay for long periods of enforced leave.

Meanwhile, there are private laboratories that are testing for the virus at an exorbitant rate of RM700 per test, when the reagents for this test only cost RM100 per test. Is this the appropriate time to maximise profits by hiking up the price of a scarce but crucial service?

PSM calls on all private hospitals and medical laboratories to come forward and play a role in the fight against this major threat to humanity. They have all the resources to do so, having reaped handsome profits in normal times. Now there is a dire need for them to use a small portion of their accumulated profits to save lives and to lend a hand to an overburdened public health system.

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For sure, there are many problems, such as the short supply of masks and other personal protective equipment. But private healthcare providers can do more than just wring their hands helplessly. For example, if they set their minds to it, the association of private hospitals can work together with local factories and, if needed, technology from overseas to facilitate the production of adequate amounts of personal protective equipment.

Such an initiative will pay for itself as the need for such equipment in Malaysia and in the Asean region is only going to increase in the foreseeable future.

For the private hospitals that do not voluntarily come forward to play a role, we ask that the government issue a directive requiring their participation in this critical battle. The government should open a hotline for patients to report private hospitals that turn people away just because they complain of respiratory symptoms.

We are facing a health emergency. Selfish behavior on the part of private hospitals and laboratories should not be tolerated!

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