Monday, December 21, 2015

Health in All Policies (HiAP) in Malaysia: Now More Than Ever

I refer to the statement made by our Deputy Director-General of Health, Datuk Dr Lokman Hakim in the New Strait Times article ‘Multi-agency Effort Needed to Tackle Diseases’ on 18 December 2015.

In the wake of recent national issues that directly affects health such as that of vape, bauxite mining and leptospirosis, the Deputy Health Director-General's comment on the necessity of multi-agency effort to combat diseases came at fitting time. Although the focus of his comments was on leptospirosis, there is a larger and growing national concerns that commends such effort: non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension (NCDs) is on the rise, infectious diseases such as dengue and leptospirosis is becoming epidemic across the country, health care costs are spiralling up, inequities are growing. On top of that, we face urgent environmental problems that contributes directly to health hazards: the recent haze, bauxite mining in Kuantan, water contamination to name a few.

Lacking the mandate, authority and organizational capacity, the prevention of these issues that require nation-wide interventions are largely beyond the power of Ministry of Health. We as medical doctors can plead for things like lifestyle changes, tough legislation against vaping, high taxation for tobacco, but we cannot re-engineer social and political environments in ways that puts health at its core.

Many developed nations have long recognized the importance of inter-sectoral efforts in tackling diseases and can be traced back to the 1978 World Health Organization (WHO) Alma-Ata declaration that formally acknowledges of the importance of intersectoral action for health. It was later carried forward in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (adopted in Ottawa in 1986), which discussed “healthy public policies” as a key area for health promotion, and gave rise to the concept of “Health in all Policies” (HiAP) in 2006 during the Finnish Presidency of the EU.

The WHO defines HiAP as “an approach to public policies across sectors that systematically takes into account the health implications of decisions, seeks synergies, and avoids harmful health impacts, in order to improve population health and health equity”. An early example is the “North Karelia Project” launched in 1972 aimed to reduce the impact of coronary heart disease in the Finnish region of North Karelia through engaging other sectors such as community organizations, dairy and meat producers, schools to improve community health. The project, which involved the support of the Finnish authorities and the WHO, resulted in significant reductions in cardiovascular disease mortality and has been noted as a successful model for cross-sector collaboration.

Some may argue that we already have elements of HiAP in place, taking an example when the Ministry of Health collaborates with the Ministry of Education to promote health education, dental health and routine immunizations. However, HiAP is more than a collaboration between 2 agencies. HiAP in other countries has moved on to centralize health efforts by establishing councils chaired by the Health Minister, with members from each ministries and agencies that affect health and wellbeing, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Rural and Regional Development, Urban Wellbeing  and Housing, Domestic Trade, and even including the local authorities and city planners to convene at least twice a year to discuss the current national issues that affects health of citizens either directly or indirectly.

Back to our beloved country Malaysia, taking example of issues such as vaping and bauxite mining in which there is still no coherent effort between agencies and ministries to tackle the problem, it is evident that it is high time we adapt HiAP in our approach to become a developed nation by 2020. A developed nation is not only a country that is economically sound, but also a country in which its citizens are physically and mentally healthy, as reflected by its citizens’ life expectancy.

While serving as an intern at the Social Determinants of Health Unit in WHO headquarters in Geneva, I had the chance to be a part of a working group that examines case studies relating to HiAP in developing countries. I have noticed that while HiAP is a new concept to the developing world, many are already approaching the WHO for advise and technical assistance to start implement HiAP in their respective countries. Each countries has their own social, political and economic factors that affects health. What works in one country might not work in another, however I do not see why we shouldn't start by asking for assistance. Health is a core element in people’s well-being and happiness. In the end, policies made in regard of health is not about political, social and economic interests. It is about ensuring that we leave behind a healthier world to live in, for or children and future generations to come.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Laying the Foundation of Social Health Enterprises (SHE) in Developing Countries. Paving a way for Universal Health Coverage?

I have been tinkering around with this concept called “Social Health Enterprise”, finding ways for it to be applied to Hospitals Beyond Boundaries. Social Health Enterprise is actually a new term that has never used it before in literature or research. It just struck me that they always use the term 'social enterprise within health care' in literature and researches, figured it would be too long to write. So for the purpose of brevity, I shall introduce the term “Social Health Enterprise”, in short SHE.

Social Health Enterprise is derived from the concept of Social Enterprise. Many of us are not yet familiar to the basic concept of ‘social enterprise’ itself, so here's me trying my best to put it in simple terms:

Social business / enterprise is a midway between a charity and a business. It is like a charity in terms that it does good and solves a social problem, but it is business-like in which it operates as a business, generating profits from sales of products or service. The unique feature is that all profit cannot be taken as dividends by investors/shareholders, instead it is reinvested in the business, for the improvement and extension of services or used for programs that benefit of the wider community. In his book, Nobel Prize Winner Professor Muhammad Yunus characterizes social business as an enterprise created and designed to address a social problem, and it is a non-loss, non-dividend company, i.e. it is financially self-sustainable. All profits generated by the business are reinvested in the business itself (or used to start other social businesses), with the aim of increasing impact on the community.

Now you may ask why am I alternating between the terms ‘social business’ and ‘social enterprise’? People have long discussions on the use and differences between these terms. I am not going to elaborate on these discussions, but simply put, social business is the brainchild of Professor Muhammad Yunus and the business has to stick to these 7 principles:

1. Business objective will be to overcome poverty, or one or more problems (such as education, health, technology access, and environment) which threaten people and society; not profit maximization
2. Financial and economic sustainability
3. Investors get back their investment amount only. No dividend is given beyond investment money
4. When investment amount is paid back, company profit stays with the company for expansion and improvement
5. Gender sensitive and environmentally conscious
6. Workforce gets market wage with better working conditions
7. ...Do it with joy

I believe that social enterprises are similar, but they hang more loosely around these principles. For the sake of discussion, I stick to Social Business when describing business in relation to Prof Yunus’ endeavor, and social enterprise to describe those businesses in general. Generally, I am referring to the same thing. 

So, when it comes to business and charity in healthcare, I like to ask this question:

“Why is it that you can find thirst-quenching 1 dollar can of Coca-Cola anywhere in the world, but not life-saving 12-cents malaria medicines?

In his book ‘The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good’, William Easterly poses a similar question (he used Harry Potter book analogy, not a fan, sorry!) that becomes a central theme in his book. Easterly hails Professor Muhammad Yunus as a ‘searcher’ who can afford to solve these kind of problems by combining innovative entrepreneurship skills to solve a public problem, through his breakthrough idea on microcredit, and later social businesses.

Actually, I have been thinking about this concept of social business within health care since HBB's inception in 2012. I think HBB was born at the right time when social entrepreunership was at its infancy and growing well in Malaysia. Thanks to myHarapan, HBB's mentor organization, I managed to meet Professor Muhammad Yunus the father of social business himself. I met him in South Africa on October 2013, at the back of a stage, at a moment when I was freaking out because it was nearly my turn to talk to more than 1000 audience in the hall. I did not have much time and explained all about HBB to him as brief as I can. I asked him a few things about his theory on social business. I asked him where I can go to learn best about social enterprise. He told me the best place to learn is to go back to the community I am trying to serve and learn from them. Wow, okay that was profound. I was thinking of Stanford or something. That is the beauty of social business. It is innovative and tailors to the community that the best way to learn is to be on the ground. It is not rigid that you have to go and sit in classes all day long.

Professor Muhammad Yunus and I at the backstage during One Young World Summit in South Africa. Seconds before my turn to talk

The hype of social enterprises escalated when Obama came to Malaysia, the first sitting president to do so since 1966, for the fourth Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Kuala Lumpur. It was then that the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) was first announced, and in the Budget 2014 proposal later that month, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced an RM50-million (US$15.3-million) allocation for it. 

MaGIC's mandate is to encourage innovative start-ups and entrepreneurship in general, however a lot of attention was given to social enterprises as a way to solve community's problems. Unfortunately, health care in social enterprises was quite in the side line. For example, a statement from the Secretary-General of the Treasury at MoF during MaGIC's launch was: 

"MaGIC would be an independent body that will act as a one-stop centre for all kinds of entrepreneurs – not necessarily just high-tech and those related to ICT, but also entrepreneurs dedicated to the services sector, agro-based products, logistics and so on,” 

...And so, health care is part of that ‘so-on’ sector.

Since then I spent a lot of time researching social enterprises in healthcare throughout the years. They are quite a lot actually, and it has been around for quite some time in the developed world. For example, it was being promoted in the UK in 2005 by former NHS Chief Executive Sir Nigel Crisp, followed by statement by the Secretary of State Andrew Lansley declaring a wish to transform the NHS into ‘the largest social enterprise sector in the world’. However, despite from various efforts from the Department of Health, such as Social Enterprise Investment Fund (SEIF) and The Right to Request programme, there is still inadequate evidence to support the effectiveness of social entrepreneurship within healthcare in the UK. One of the main reasons being the UK already has a strong public-funded healthcare provided by the National Health Service (NHS), putting the private healthcare sector, in which social enterprises operates in, considerably smaller and less extensive than its public equivalent. 

Furthermore, many social enterprises are public service mutuals or ‘spin-outs’ from the NHS, which are organisations which have left the public sector (i.e. spun out) but continue to deliver public services. As a result, the responsibility of initiating social enterprises within healthcare in the UK are put to mainly former NHS staffs, clinicians, those who mostly don’t have the courage to start their own social business when they are already comfortable in the NHS. Because of the public’s accustomization to the NHS branding in which the majority of health services in the UK are under, social enterprises also lacks the confidence that the NHS branding provides. 

I believe that social entrepreneurship can play a more effective role in the health care of developing countries, like most countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia. This is because, in contrast to developed nations, many developing countries adapt a two-tier health care system where they have a quite seperated public and private funded health care system. Those who could afford purchase additional health care services or receive better quality and faster access thorough the private health care. Those who could not afford will have to go to the public healthcare, which are multiple times more crowded than the private. 

To date, there has been no coherent and strong effort to utilize social enterprise in health care in two-tier health care systems, when in fact, developing countries have a backdrop of public institutions becoming increasingly viewed as inefficient, ineffective and unresponsive, and the private sector becoming more profit-oriented and only caters to those who could afford health care. So there is a huge gap here and there is a need for a health care system that bridges between the two. Even in Malaysia, the private spending for health has overtaken the public spending since 2004. In absence of health financing reform, our health system will likely become increasingly privatized both in funding and service delivery. The public sector has only about 10% of primary care clinics but handle almost 40% of outpatient visits. The public clinics manage larger proportions of chronic diseases as compared to the private sector. We have tried to solve this problem by proposing 1 Care for 1 Malaysia system, but it got a strong opposition from the public, because perhaps it is too big a change to happen in an instant. I think a social health enterprise can be an alternative by bridging the public and private one step at a time, encouraging private practitioners to play a role in public service, and benefiting their business at the same time. 

So here is my definition of Social Health Enterprise (SHE):

A social health enterprise is a healthcare business with an objective to fulfil a public health purpose. It uses market-based mechanisms to operate, but its aim is to solve a community’s health problems. Profits are reinvested for the improvement and extension of services or used for public health programs for the benefit of the wider community.

Inspired by Prof Yunus' 7 Principles of Social Business, I came up with the characteristics of a 'Social Health Enterprise', in which HBB clinic will operate like:

1. Starts as a primary health care facility, with operations guided by a Family Medicine Specialist (FMS) and a Public Health Physician
2. The objective of the healthcare business is to overcome a community’s public health problems; not for profit maximization
3. The health care business attains financial and economic sustainability without depending on continuous donations
4. Profits are reinvested for the improvement and extension of services or used for public health programs for the benefit of the wider community
5. Investors can only get back their investment amount. No dividend is given beyond investment money.
6. Staffs receives monthly salary based on the country’s market wage with increments based on time or performance. No bonuses are given as any surpluses are reinvested
7. Strives to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC), by working with other private sectors and the local government.

Now point number 7 is very important as I find it missing from the many social enterprises in health care in developing nations. I find that many social enterprises in healthcare in developing countries too disease-specific. They usually focus on eradicating a single disease, like malaria, HIV, TB, treat cataract, saving children with thalassemias. SHEs must be more than that, it has to provide a social safety net, so that the poor, no matter what disease they have, can afford health care for their disease. This is in line with the concept of Universal Health Care (UHC). 

UHC is defined by the World Health Organization as:

"Ensuring that all people can use the promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship"

UHC is firmly based on the WHO constitution of 1948 declaring health a fundamental human right and on the Health for All agenda set by the Alma-Ata declaration in 1978. The DG of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan went as far as to say: 

"Universal coverage is the single most powerful concept that public health has to offer. It is the best way to cement the health gains made during the previous decade. It operationalizes the highest ethical principles of public health. It is a powerful social equalizer and the ultimate expression of fairness"

My former boss at the WHO in Geneva loves discussing about UHC when I was there, and he gave me an article written by a health economist called David Stuckler, discussing a lot about the three dimensions of UHC. Upon reading his article I was interested in the financing part of UHC. There are many methods to finance UHC, most commonly used are social health insurance, tax-based, single payers, but what interest me the most is: "community based health insurance". I think it best fits what we are trying to do at HBB .

Dr Eugenio and Victoria, former bosses at the WHO
As with everything, theories must be tested and tried, and that is exactly what HBB will be trying to do. For our clinic, we are going to devise a community based health insurance system that works best for vulnerable communities. Since currently we are focusing on maternal and child health, perhaps we will start by insuring pregnant mother and their newborn child against catastrophic healthcare cost in the event that complications arises. Then we can extend to the general population. Step by step, we are going to keep revising the system until it is workable and replicable to other communities at large, until it can be adapted to the whole nation; which is the aim of UHC.

I think this field of SHE can be grown and tried on small communities, and extend from there. I would like to develop further this concept of SHEs and find out its challenges. I would like to spark a discussion on this. For example, if we can get all private practitioners to run SHEs and play a role in public health, what is it that they get other than satisfaction in helping patients who could not afford? The government has to come out with an appealing agreement or incentive, like NHS's 'The Right to Request programme' and their health departments's Social Enterprise Investment Fund (SEIF).

I believe this concept of SHE looks promising can be further developed (if I am not optimist about my own idea, nobody will, right?). Healthcare sector is also a very promising sector for social entrepreneurship because it affects the livelihood of a person directly. I am no expert in health financing and health economics. Maybe if I become one someday I can start publishing papers in journals, or better yet write books about SHEs. But for now I do need your opinions. There might be organizations out there that is doing something similar, and maybe everything I wrote above has already been thought up by another organization. But it doesn't matter and that is the beauty of social businesses. We do not compete with each other because we know that we are all trying to achieve the same objectives. So if you have any feedbacks, comments, suggested case studies, do let me know

Monday, September 14, 2015

Of Personal Love, Professional Passion & Philanthropic Mission

This picture was taken the night after Hospitals Beyond Boundaries launched its first clinic in Cambodia. Seen here is my dear fiance holding my cute little nephew, Imtiyaz while we were having a meeting at a Malaysian restaurant in down town Phnom Penh. I remember it as one of the happiest days of my life as we celebrate the launch of our very first clinic.

Life is beautiful when you have someone to share the most meaningful moments in life with. It is the more beautiful when that someone not only understands your passion for a cause, but even being a part of it. The first time my fiance saw me in person was in 2012. I was a 4th year medical student and during the moment that she saw me, I was drenched in sweat, presenting a research study on the epidemiology of tuberculosis in Kuala Lumpur. I did not notice her at the time as I was nervously focusing on the panel of judges, and we didn't get to talk to each other that day.

Few years down the line, fate intertwined our path and we meet again in Sungai Buloh Hospital where we worked. She showed me a picture of my tuberculosis research presentation she took 2 years ago in her cracked-screen Samsung S2 and asked: "remember this?". At that time I was working in the surgical department, and being too long in the world of blood and flesh inside the operating theatre, the picture brought back the memories of how happy I was working on something I was truly passionate about.

She went on reminding me of my "public-speaking  for a cause" workshops to raise funds for HBB, in which she registered as a participant but in the end had to pull out the last minute because of unscheduled classes. From that moment on, I knew I would want to spend the rest of my life with this girl. Someone who is not just supportive of my work but always reminds me of my life purpose. With her, I didn't have to compartmentalize any of my life's ambitions: personal love, professional passion or philanthropic mission. They all converged into a single goal.

Like my parents and siblings who are all into HBB, she would be a perfect addition to the family. My parents has been very supportive of our relationship, and all of this wouldn't be possible without my loving mother who did all the engagement and wedding arrangements (remember how I thought 'cincin belah rotan' was to be bought in a souvenir shop? She knows her son is hopeless). Getting engaged is only the beginning, there is still a lot to go through and of course, life after marriage is the real challenge. But I believe with the blessing of our families, we will make it through until our marriage next year, insyaAllah

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Best Job In The World - Part II

2 years ago, I unpacked my bags in a tent in the middle of the African savanna, waking up to giraffes, hippos and rhinos in my backyard. I took showers under the blazing sun, and gathered around campfires at night, writing in my journal about what I have discovered so far, with a good cup of coffee by my side, under the shining stars.

Being in the wild, it doesn't matter where I was, in Africa, Cambodia, Indonesia, rural Malaysia, I've always brought along my stethoscope and a first aid kit. I never ran into any misfortunes among my team members having a heart attack or anything, but, just in case. Those times, I feel like I belong.

I wish to become a doctor in these settings, not just treating patients, but being involved in the intricate ecology system that makes or breaks a disease cycle. Identifying mosquitoes, vectors, worms, bacterias, other parasites. Identifying patients affected by these disease, examining them and able to come up with an accurate provisional diagnosis on the spot, being able to treat them. 

Truly, the best feeling is when you see a person suffering from a disease in front of you and having the exact knowledge on how to alleviate that suffering. 

I would also love to have a team that travels around the world to identify disease outbreaks, mapping them on the map using GIS system, doing statistical analysis, or even identifying new infectious disease agents or vectors. Walking up hills over hills for a house visit, walking down rivers to find a source of contamination, and later putting them into research, publishing journals and contribute to the overall knowledge of the medical fraternity.

Too idealistic, I know. There might not be a job opportunity like that in Malaysia, but if there really isn't any, then I wish to create it with HBB. We've already started regular de-worming programs to the rural kids, at least once a year, every time our team comes for mobile clinics. We distribute free anti-helminths to those who often get infested by worms due to poor sanitation and inadequate personal hygiene.

I have been very very busy these past few months with clinical work, especially with the surmounting cases of dengue fever admitted to our wards. I admit for the past few months I haven't been able to attend much to my real passion. But I believe all of this is necessary for the knowledge that I gain on infectious disease. Last week I spoke to my infectious disease specialist and we came up to the topic of my future plans. I told him about my interest in tropical medicine and global health, epidemiology and stuff. His face gleamed with delight and said "You have come to the right place!". He meant being in Hospital Sungai Buloh, the center for infectious disease in Malaysia. He even told me that if there is anything he would do differently in life, he would have gone into the field of epidemiology.

My 2 years compulsory training in hospitals will end early next year, I am thinking of taking a long leave again to focus again on HBB, and with the knowledge I have gained, build our clinic up, growing from strength to strength each day, without the constrain of time, pressure of bosses, peers and colleagues. Purely driven by curiosity, passion and purpose. I will be back soon

Monday, August 24, 2015

Infections and Inequalities

It is true that people who are in the ‘same boat’ understands each other more, I am speaking in terms of patients having the same disease. For the past few weeks I have been working at the infectious disease ward at the National Leprosy Centre. It used to be filled with leprosy patients, it now admits patients with the more common infectious disease of today: those affected with HIV/AIDS. Located near Sungai Buloh Prison, the main prison of Malaysia, it also houses a lot of sick inmates and convicts from the prison. My ward, ward 54 has patients which are mostly HIV positive, and some of them have been there for a long time. Sometimes they are just waiting a place for them to stay when they are discharged from the wards.

I have been observing them for awhile now, and I can say that I have never worked in a ward where patients really care for each other. I had a patient with cerebral toxoplasmosis which damaged his brain function to the extent that he could not control his hands while feeding. Every time food is served, the patient next to him would sit beside, and slowly feed him before taking his own meal. Another day, a patient had vomited on the floor, suffering the side effects from the new HIV drug that we started, and the next thing that happened was the patient next to him ran to the toilet. I thought that he couldn’t stand the awful smell, but instead he came back with a mop and cleaned up the vomit right away.

National Leprosy Centre, Sungai Buloh
Last weekend I was letting another HIV patient home, and I saw him exchanging phone number with the patient in front of him. I kiddingly asked him: “eh, tuka nombor ni sebab nanti nak masuk balik ke?” (exchanging numbers because you want to come back here, do you?). His answer touched me. He actually found out that the other patient had been in the wards for months only because of placement issue: he does not have a place to stay if we let him go. So he took the other patient’s number, because he knows a relative who owns a home for the disabled. Once he is out, he said he will persuade his relative to let the guy stay at that home. He is just worried because of his friend’s HIV status, whether his relative would consider letting him stay.

In the beginning I was afraid to work in a ward full of convicts, prisoners, and drug addicts. But it is only after talking to the patients, knowing their social issues, getting to know them as individuals instead of diseases, that I see another side of them. Not all of them are bad. One convict was running away from the police stealing a hi-fi audio player. When the police snatched him, he accidentally dropped the hi-fi on the police’s foot, and now he is charged with ‘police assault’ that gives him heavier punishment and more years in jail. He regretted his act until today. Even if they were bad in the past, it doesn’t mean that they still are. I see some who was constantly reading the Quran and makes the effort to pray 5 times a day. As I mentioned before, some of them really took care of their friends. We cannot stigmatize these people, who we are to judge them based on the disease that they have? Prophet Muhammad SAW once said:

O people! All of you are the children of Adam. You are like equal wheat grains in a bowl ... No one has any superiority over anyone else, except in religion and heedfulness. In order to consider someone a wicked person, it suffices that he humiliates other people, is mean with money, bad-tempered and exceeds the limits.(Narrated by Abu Hurayrah (r.a.), Ahmad, Abu Dawud, 4/331)

These are the people who are the most vulnerable, the most stigmatized, shunned from the outside community. As a doctor, I swore not to treat these patients any differently than how I treat the others: VIPs and ministers alike. My times in Indonesia and Cambodia has carved a different way of how I approach these diseases. I would not jump at the moment a new drug for HIV, or TB, or malaria has been launched. I would only jump in joy if these drugs could reach the ones most vulnerable to these diseases: the poor, the homeless, the prisoners. I know it takes a lot of effort to ditch the stigma that we have towards these people, especially those affected with HIV, but once you talk to them you will realize that they are no more different than you: with hopes for the future, with families, friends and a job to keep. If we keep stigmatizing others and deny them of adequate treatment, I guess as they slowly feed another friend who are much worse than them, in their eyes, all they can their future self

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sleeping With A Mosquito

"Doktor, buat la dengue notification cepat. Patient dah 2 hari dalam wad takde orang pon buat"

In the midst of my hectic day, with a few CT-scans to request, a patient who wants 'at own risk' discharge, another demanded to change beds, I grudgingly did the dengue notification, and sent it.

It seems like a mindless act. Tick a few boxes, put in some numbers, and send it. For us as housemans, it feels like a mundane and repetitive procedure.

But today, listening to lectures on global health diplomacy made me reflect. What I love about attending these global public health lectures is that it makes you learn something that you already know, but not realize.

In all these big conferences at the WHO, or even at the UN, delegates will almost always start with statistical data to prove their point: "In 2014 the WHO stated that the mortality caused by dengue is...etc etc etc"...the "the UN estimates the lives loss by Malaria is...etc etc etc"

We quote the WHO, other research organizations, but to think of it, do these data come them? No. It comes from us, the ones even at the ground most level of the Ministry of Health.

In my current situation, it feels like I'm walking along the river, then hearing a person shouts for help because he's drowning. So I jumped in and pulled him out. Successfully resuscitate him back to life. Then I hear another person shouts for help and saw another one in the river. I went in again. Then there is another one...and another one. I was too busy saving the drowning ones, I forgot to wonder, who the heck is up the stream pushing all these people into the river?

The drowning ones could be the ones affected by dengue, it could apply to other diseases as well.  The ones pushing them in, are the social could be the environment, it could be the economy, the governance etc etc. Right now I am busy saving the drowning ones, but someday hoping I can be the one going upstream to see 'who the heck' is pushing them in'.

Malaysia is trying to put the dengue epidemic higher on the global agenda, and we all play a role in this, even you, houseman! Even the staff nurse who reminded you to do the dengue notification. Without reporting we have no data to speak of, and it will never be on the global agenda. We all in the Ministry of Health play a significant role, no matter what your position is. So never feel your role is too small for the betterment of the nation's health. As an African proverb goes: "If you feel that you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito"

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Remember This Moment

The day was coming to an end. The construction workers, tired and wary after a long day doing the final touch for our clinic, were having their much-delayed lunch by a serene pond next to our clinic. As the sun sets over the horizon, I sat down on some wooden planks, looked around, still finding it hard to believe that in this foreign place, we have a piece of land we can call our own.

I began to wonder when did all of this began. Was it three, four  years ago? Must have been four. Yes, Hospitals Beyond Boundaries was establised three years ago, but it was four years ago a stranger known as Ustaz Kausar came to my house to tell a story of suffering. I sat at the back during my family's usrah, listening intently to his story about the suffering of the Cham ethnic minority of Cambodia. Ustaz Kausar almost did not notice me, and I did not expect him to notice me too. We would never have guessed that 4 years ahead, we would become like brothers, working together to make our dreams of having our own health centre a reality.

Many have asked "Why Cambodia?" and I wish I could have just answered "because Ustaz Kausar took me here". But it was more complicated than that, involving much more people than the both of us. I have brought many people along with me in this journey, some of those that I knew I would be hanging around for the rest of my life. HBB became a family, growing bigger and bigger, and tomorrow we would be receiving 60 volunteers from Malaysia, each and everyone believing in this cause that 3 years ago was just a dream of a bunch of students.

I swear I have never felt a stronger sense of purpose in my life. HBB is the reason I stay awake at night, and it is the motivation for me to wake up in the morning. Simple things we did today, like going to the store in Phnom Penh to buy PCs for our clinic felt so meaningful. As I ride the tuk-tuk, I felt the wind rush over my skin, knowing each mile I go for the purpose of our clinic might make someone's life better.

With HBB, I didn't have to compartmentalize any of my life's ambitions: personal, professional or philanthropic. I don't have to choose between work and family. I don't have to choose between making money or doing charity. They all converged in a single mission. HBB started with my family, it bonds our family together, and I would only marry someone who understands and interested in this work we do.

Today is a snapshot of these purposeful moments. I was not bounded by the ticking clock. All I knew was that I need to get to the pharmacy to stock up on medications, to the IT store to buy PCs and the electrical shop to buy floodlights before the sun sets. Like the birds and the bees, I am free from the fear that plagues men: the fear that time is running out.

I gave the floodlight to the construction workers before the sun hides away its light. They would put up the lights tonight, shining our clinic out of the darkness of the night, and here I am, sitting on the wooden planks, as the evening Cambodian wind blows softly as my thumbs pound on this small screen, trying my best to describe the day I had.

Some people struggle hard in life to find their purpose, some make it to death without even discovering it. I believe I have found mine, but the road ahead of me is still long, and there will be a lot of forks on the road, difficult decisions to make. The purpose of me writing this is to remind my future self facing those moments. Remember today, 2 days before the launching of HBB's first clinic. If I lost my way, remember this day. The day I feel so alive, so purposeful, so confident that this is what I want to spend my life doing. If I lost my way, may this writing bring me back to this moment, and make me discover back my purpose...

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Keep Calm and Finish Housemanship

Today, as I was doing my job in the wards one of my colleague made a quick remark of me "well, you seem to enjoy working". I was putting notes on the computer, while playing Echosmith's Bright on low volume on the phone in my pocket. Head bobbing to the tune.

Yeah, I was happy.

I gave it a thought, just a year ago, I hated my job. I woke up feeling nauseous, trying to brush my teeth was a challenge as to not induce vomiting. I had palpitations as I near the hospital entrance. I jumped at every notice the staff nurse gave "Doctor blood pressure patient bed 3 low", "Doctor, temperature patient bed 6 spike", "Doctor, doctor, doctorrrr mana discharge note???". It was overwhelmingly crazy, I admit it was a tough environment.

Today, I admit I am still not one of those passionate and dedicated houseman who would stay back at the hospital to learn something new. I finish my work fast, to get back on time to go for my NGO meetings, to reply emails, to get in touch with investors, to prepare for my next talk. But at least I no longer hate my job. It instead felt fulfilling. Morning drives used to be full of wary imaginations of how the ward would be full, how the rounds would be horrible. Now I drive to work with my brain thinking about...nothing. What will be will be.

I guess as you expose your brain long enough to any challenging environment, your brain will adapt to it sooner or later. The secret is to keep pushing on. The moment where you feel that you are losing out and about to give up, that was when you push the hardest.

For those new houseman out there just starting out, if you feel that you are living through hell, I understand, I was once just like you. But if you keep pushing on you will see enough patients and learn and identify patterns of diseases, patterns that allows you to predict the next course of treatment you should initiate. Patterns that are, in a sense...remarkably beautiful as you discover and bow down to Allah's promise that there is a cure for every illness in this world except for death.

So keep marching on until the sun comes out, and one day, you will be able to say to the staff nurse, with confident, in a most calm and collected manner..."rilex, run 1 pint normal saline dulu, slow sikit ah"

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Best Job in The World

Last week Hospitals Beyond Boundaries​ produced its first paycheck to its first employee, a local Cambodian Medical Officer in Phnom Penh. We have come a long way from being an NGO founded by 2 medical students, to a group of 13 young professionals that works on voluntary basis, and now an international organization that creates employment for local communities in low-income nations. It feels great to realize that we are creating something that could change the core of people's lives. In the Malaysian landscape where financial security is becoming more and more a rarity, a place where even being a doctor does not give you job security, we, the youth are defiant on permanently being job seekers. We are slowly becoming job creators. Crafting what could probably be...the best job in the world

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Rise of the Gen-Y Doctors: Stop Scaring Us Off!

Since I have been working in the hospital for the past one year, I can’t help to notice the burgeoning number of medical students exhibiting these non-purposeful movements inside the wards. There could be up to 50 medical students in the ward at one time, from various universities, private and public alike. While to some of my colleagues, these students are a nuisance and just slow down our work, I actually don’t mind having them around, because not too long ago I was like them too. I understand how it feels to be there to get your cases for teachings, to fill in log-books, to be eager to learn or do something, do some real doctoring. But I can’t help to think “wow, all these people will become doctors? There are 2 to 3-fold more of them in the ward compared to patients!”The glut of new medical school graduates is obviously not breaking news. I brought up this issue back when I was the President of the MMA Medical Student Society in 2011. Although I am still worried about the glut of new doctors coming in, I do not agree that scaring these doctors-to-be into quitting medicine and find something else to do is the way to go. I don’t think it helps those whose parents has invested a lot in sending their children to medical school, using all their savings, and having high hopes for their children to be the first doctor in the family.

We should stop scaring future doctors that there will be no more jobs for them in the future. If we limit ourselves to the thinking of medicine involves only being in the mainstream specialties like being a cardiologist, neurologist, surgeon, paediatrician and the likes, yes there will be not enough places for all of us. But the new generation of doctors must see medicine as a much wider field, much of it unexplored, and any of our innate talents can be incorporated to advance this discipline of saving lives. Let's face it. Everyone is a genius in their own fields of interest. Even though you are erupting enthusiastic about doing hard-core clinical medicine, there must be certain departments in the hospital that brings you down to the level that made you think twice about being a full-fledged doctor. Forcing someone to be an outstanding doctor in a department that he or she is not interested in is like forcing Stephen Hawking to paint and Picasso to explain about the beginnings of the universe.

We are aspiring to be a first-world country, but we are still having the third-world way of seeing things. We still look at the less-mainstream specialty as ‘second-class’: the pathologists, basic medical scientists, pharmacologists, haematologists, public health specialists, family medicine specialists, etc. When one of my friends aspires to become a haematologist, my colleagues automatically thought that he just wants to be lazy and sit around answering the phone from house officers who need MO code for their blood investigations. Truth is, haematology is a far more challenging field, and I had witnessed it myself when I met with Dr Noryati Abu Amin when I worked for the WHO. She is a dedicated and highly respected Malaysian haematologist that has served the World Health Organization HQ in Geneva for more than 10 years, creating guidelines and protocols for safe blood transfusion that is strictly followed around the world. She is currently the head of National Blood Bank Malaysia. You see, some good students with good memories are born to become protocol-memorizers. Some that are not that good memorizers but are greater on the innovation side are born to become protocol-developers.

In the first world countries, many ‘less-mainstream’ specialty doctors, the researchers especially, achieve great things in the field of medicine, winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine. In some first world countries, you need to have a degree in something else before you can enroll into a medical school. They are very supportive of inter-disciplinary application of knowledge. Every medical student knows David Netter. He took a degree in arts before doing medicine. As a result, he incorporated art into anatomy, and hence produced one of the main references for anatomy that all medical students around the world use. In Malaysia, when you are interested in something different from the mainstream, people label you as ‘not a real doctor’. When one of my MO was transferred department to join the CRC (Clinical Research Centre), the other specialist and MOs looked to him as ‘too weak for the department’, ‘not doing a true doctor’s job’, because he is more interested in doing research. For me, medicine has to incorporate 2 main values: service and academic. Service is important, but if everyone’s doing service, who is going to develop medicine further? As we move on to become a developed nation, our health care must evolve to become that of a developed country, where research comes hand in hand with service. Maybe we need more doctors to study Tropical Medicine and learn ways to stop the epidemic of dengue instead of adding more beds to the hospital, maybe we need more doctors to research the antimicrobial resistance in the hospitals, maybe we need another doctor to even take up politics and revive the old days where Malaysia moves forward at a fast rate, lead by a medical doctor. Smart people are smart enough not to do medicine if we scare them off. If we keep scaring them off, the only ones left to do medicine are the dumb ones who don’t care about their future.

When we see the medical field as a vast, largely unexplored area of knowledge, we will see its job opportunities in abundance. So medical students, or all those aspiring to be doctors, come, come from where ever you are. No matter where you graduate from: Indonesia, India, Czech, Russia, everyone has their own talent that can be incorporated into the field of medicine. Only if we open our minds and see medicine as a wider field. We are the Generation-Y doctors. Maybe a Nobel Prize is within the reach of our generation. In the words of the Irish singer Damien Rice in his song ‘Trusty and True’:

“Come, let yourself be wrongCome, it's already begunCome, come aloneCome with fear, come with loveCome however you areJust come, come aloneCome with friends, come with foesCome however you areJust come, come aloneCome with me, then let goCome however you areJust come, come aloneCome so carefully closedCome however you areJust come…”

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Another Year

Scrolling through photos of Malaysian delegates at this year's WHO Executive Board Meeting, I only realized it has been a year since I was there. Time flies, life has been so much busier, life in the hospital is so much different. But I guess Allah has the best laid plans, everything has a reason. 

One instance is that I was involved in helping to draft a framework for WHO's Roll-back Malaria program in Geneva. I thought my ideas were good, but now I am back in my own country seeing how Malaria really looks like, I had to think twice. It's funny that we prescribe mosquito nets, and the mother tells me the mosquitoes are INSIDE the net, nets are too old and torn, some are even not used and are modified to become fishing nets! (the family originated from Indonesia, and they were back in their hometown at that time).

In terms of my country's own public health threat, the past few months has been exhausting with the non-stop cases of dengue coming in. I did not work on something about dengue when I was in the WHO, and wished I had. The dengue epidemic in Malaysia has totally went out of hand, and it is frustrating to have the same child coming in with recurrent dengue, which he had a few years ago. I could get angry assuming that the parents did not do enough to protect the child, but on further questioning, the parents in fact had done their best to make their house aedes-free. But the problem is, what's the use if you are the only one working to eradicate aedes. The neighbours are still ignorant, the community does not care when a container with stagnant water is outside of their house compound. The community is still malaise about dengue when nobody in their family has died of dengue. They still wish for a miracle vaccine and the government to provide these to solve the problem. They haven't seen a mother crying in regret, asking for forgiveness in front of her daughter's dead body that has died of dengue.

I did not experience this before, and never had a burning desire to solve this at a global level. I guess it is really helpful to be in contact with patients, knowing how they live, eat, sleep, how their socio-economic conditions are. As the words that is stuck at my supervisor's door at the WHO HQ: "Is it sufficient to treat patients and send them back to the conditions that makes them sick in the first place?". That is the thing that kept me going, what gets me through the long hours, sleepless nights, and all the unnecessary yelling and scolding. Another year to go. I'll be back

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Death of a Child

"Ibu, jangan tinggalkan kakak"
Mother, please don't leave me.
Words like this coming from the lips of a 4 year old girl a few hours before she died made me believe that sometimes children just have the ability to know that they will go soon. Adults have their own ways of dealing with impending death, but since being in Paediatrics, I cannot help to wonder how children deal with it.
It was a Tuesday morning, and I saw a small boy being pushed into the isolation room, a room reserved for children suspected to have a contagious disease. I was in charge of the cubicle opposite the isolation room, and saw that my colleague in charge of the isolation cubicle was quite busy attending another patient. I offered to help take blood investigations for the newly admitted patient and set a line through the veins to hyrate the child.
When I asked permission from the mother to bring the child into the procedure room, I saw her eyes was swollen, fresh tears. It is common for a mother to shed tears when seeing her child in pain. But I failed to recognize that the emotional suffering she endured was far deeper than I thought.
Blood taking in Paediatrics remain a challenging procedure for young doctors, not only because the veins are small, but also because children tend to resist aggressively. Restraining a child to take blood is not an easy task. With a bit of a struggle, luck, and the mother holding tight to the child, I managed to gain access of the veins through the small needle. I withdrew just enough blood be sent to the laboratory. However, to my disappointment the needle that I used to squeeze the blood out almost fell off, and as expected, a small bulge formed under the skin as I tried to push fluids in. It meant that I had to insert a new needle. I asked the mother is it okay to insert a new one. I was worried because she obviously seemed sad. But that was when she bursted into tears and said:
"Buatlah apa-apa saja untuk selamatkan anak saya ni doktor, kakak dia dah meninggal pagi tadi"
Do whatever you can to save him, Doctor. His sister just died this morning.
For a moment, my mind went into a halt. She started to burst into tears and hugged her son tightly and went on to say
"Kakak dah tak ada"
Sister is no more with us.
I did not know what to say except to whisper 'Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un' (surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return). I focused on gaining access to another vein. To my relief, I managed to secure a line, and after cleaning up after the procedure, only then I managed to gather my thoughts and asked the mother what really happened. In a breaking voice, the mother told me that her 4 year old girl died this morning on the way to the hospital. She has been having fever for the past few days, but just when her fever started to settle down, that is when rashes appear on her palms and soles of her feet, with multiple ulcers breaking out in her mouth. She went to another hospital and the doctor diagnosed her as having the 'Hand, foot and mouth disease", by itself is self-limiting and rarely life threatening, and told the mother to rest assured as it will go away on its own.
However, that night she deteriorated quickly and started vomiting out blood. At the same time, the mother realizes that the younger brother had also started developing rashes on his hands, and to her suspicion, he has ulcers in his mouth too. That was when the little girl said to her mother "please don't leave me". The mother quickly called the ambulance to bring both children to the hospital.
On the way to the hospital, she died.
The mother went on to tell me that her neighbour's daughter had came to her house to play a few days before. She also had the same symptoms as her children. A few of my colleagues were aware of the case. We knew that Hand, Foot and Mouth disease (HFMD) rarely cause deaths. Judging from the bloody vomit which might indicate bleeding in her digestive tract, and also the high number of children around the area admitted to our wards with dengue, our best guess was that it was HFMD superimposed on dengue fever. In other words, it was dengue that caused her death, and already having her immune system weakened by dengue, she also contracted HFMD from the neighbour's daughter at the same time, so when she presented to the hospital with typical signs and symptoms of HFMD, the doctor was easily misled to NOT think of dengue and sent her home with the reassurance that it was HFMD.
The mother had stopped weeping by the time she finished telling me what happened. I accompanied her back to the isolation room. What she had told me shook me to the core. A lost of a child is tragic, but a soul of a sinless child is promised heaven, a soul that He calls al-nafs al mutmaina: the reassured soul, which is mentioned in the Quran:
"O reassured soul, return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing. And enter among My [righteous] servants. And enter My Paradise" - Quran, 89:27-30

Nobody can promise you that they can still be here tomorrow. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. We keep on thinking that everything will be the same tomorrow as it is today. But the fact of life is that life can arbitrarily cut you off your air. When you have a few hours to live, what would you do? For an adult, mostly would choose to spend their time with their loved ones. The last phone call, the last dinner, the last "I love you mak, I love you ayah". But for a child...maybe all they can say is
"Ibu, jangan tinggalkan kakak"

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