On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Unhealthy cost of private healthcare

Falling sick can be an expensive affair these days, more so if you do not have medical insurance coverage or if your company is not picking up the tab. Last week, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad urged private hospitals to reduce their charges and discounts for Malaysians. He also proposed that doctors and medical specialists take salary cuts to bring down costs and lessen the burden on patients, especially the poorer ones. Media organisations which wanted to carry a response from hospitals found what they had expected none of the private hospitals were willing to respond to the  Prime Minister's statement. The reason is simple. Private hospitals have become big businesses with many looking and acting like five-star hotels.  Motivated only by profit, kindness and care take a back seat as many in the medical profession become more and more business minded. Malaysian Medical Association president Dr Milton Lum, an outspoken personality, did respond to Dr Mahathir's statement by urging hospitals to reassess their operations and salary structure but clarified that doctors' fees were only a fraction of the total bill. Dr Lum is right. Malaysians who sought treatment in private hospitals have been slapped with charges, many seemingly unreasonable, which they cannot comprehend. Last week, an angry reader complained that her 73-year-old grandmother was admitted into a Kuala Lumpur hospital for constipation. The total charge for her four-day stay came up to over RM2,700. The reader said she requested an itemised bill but was denied at first.

After much argument, she said, the hospital agreed to itemise the  bill but warned that should the process take a long time and went beyond the 2pm checkout time, the hospital would impose another  day's room charges. The hefty bill came mainly from  charges covering ward procedure, instruments, laboratory use, ECG  monitoring, radiology and surgical applications. And the patient was treated by two doctors, there were consultation fees from both.  Discounts were finally given after much fuss, but how many Malaysians would bother to complain  to the hospital or write in to the press to correct injustices? A reporter who tried to contact the hospital concerned for its side of the story was warned in typical big-bully fashion that it would not hesitate to file a legal suit against this newspaper if the hospital's name was printed. Newspapers have received similar grievances from readers regularly, including patients being  asked to pay a deposit when they  needed treatment urgently. Malaysians, of course, understand that private hospitals are capital-intensive business ventures with expensive imported equipment and drugs. With the opening of many private  hospitals, attractive salaries have to be offered to recruit experienced medical and non-medical staff. Specialists deserve their big salaries because medical education,  particularly at post-graduate level, is costly and they ought to get the  returns from their investment. While the services offered in private hospitals may not necessarily be good these days, their facilities are still more comfortable, cleaner and orderly than that of government hospitals. Some private hospitals have also set up nursing schools, complementing the role of the Government in producing more qualified nurses. The availability of a TV set, telephone, an attached washroom, an air-conditioner, carpet flooring and even a menu in your room are the frills, which make your stay in a hospital more pleasant but also more expensive. Private hospitals must not forget  their social responsibility to Malaysians, the majority of whom are  wage-earners. There is a need to come up with more meaningful packages to reduce medical fees, and for better government scrutiny and supervision.  Malaysians, as consumers, have a right to more information, especially for what they are paying for. We should not simply allow market forces to take over. The people  have a right to reasonable healthcare, whether government or private-run. Private medical care is a recession-proof business. We still fall sick during hard times, and it can be more painful on seeing the bill  for treatment. Those who run private hospitals should realise that to succumb to greed is a more serious and hard to-cure disease.