Picture this. You had forked out between RM400,000 and RM500,000 to get your child to do a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in a public university locally or close to a million ringgit if he had studied overseas so that he would become a good doctor and serve society.
Upon completion of his degree he is accepted to undergo compulsory service (housemanship) with the government for two years. Unfortunately, halfway through his stint, he ends his life. As parents, you are in a situation of disbelief; your dreams shattered!
Why would your poor child, after spending five years in medical college and your hard-earned money – worse still your entire life savings – end his life?
Which comes to light the recent tragic incident involving a houseman attached to Penang Hospital who fell to his death outside his residence. The death of the 25-year-old on April 17 is not the first at the hospital. Another houseman at the same hospital, who called it quits, reportedly died in December 2020 – sparking claims of a bullying culture of trainee doctors by seniors.
Now, the culture of bullying in public hospitals which is apparently “considered a norm” reminds me of the ragging menace and non-stop harassment by my seniors during my college days in the late seventies. Only difference was that I was one who was not easily cowed into submission.
One evening, when I no longer could take the intense ragging, I gathered a few outsiders and beat up three of the bullies outside the campus; one of them had to seek treatment for a broken nose. It became a big issue and I was almost dismissed by the college. Fortunately, my lawyer aunt came to my rescue, and I was let off with a stern warning.
Believe it or not, no one dared to come near me after that!
How I wish bullied trainee doctors could muster enough courage and give the seniors a tight slap in full view of the patients. And later offer the excuse of “extreme provocation” as a defence. Oops! I think better not, least I would be seen as encouraging housemen to take the law into their own hands.
Anyway, let’s get back to the topic in question – the worrying trend of trainee doctors being bullied by their seniors.
On top of having to work long hours, shouted at by their seniors, including the nurses, the trainees are left to fend for themselves without learning much from their housemanship stint for fear of being intimidated for asking questions. And if they don’t ask questions, how can they gain knowledge and expertise?
It is very upsetting to hear of juniors being bullied, harassed and having to go through long working hours without proper rest.
Students choose to study medicine or are encouraged by their parents for a variety of reasons, but I guess a common goal is almost always to help people. Doctors are supposed to be caring people who believe they are in a caring profession; yet, the manner the profession treats trainees is simply difficult to accept.
Despite numerous reports of housemen being bullied, little or no action is taken by the authorities as the appalling treatment of junior doctors is almost seen as a ‘given’.
According to findings of a survey, a shocking 70 per cent of doctors claimed they they were victims of bullying while serving in government hospitals and 17 per cent of them had contemplated suicide.
And 75 per cent of the doctors in a survey by the Doctors Only Bulletin Board System claimed they were losing interest in their work.
It simply shows the severity of the bullying culture in the medical profession in this country.
If trainee doctors lodged a complaint about long hours, being overworked or bullied they were often belittled as their supervisors would argue that the latter’s “conditions were far worse during their time”.
Come to think of it, it’s ridiculous to expect the housemen to go through atrocious conditions and still expect them to perform their job properly. This is insane!
I am sure the authorities and our politicians will argue that bullying in government hospitals is “under control and has not reached a critical stage”. But hey, please understand that if the issue is not resolved any time soon, more unfortunate incidents are likely to occur.
Personally, I have come across numerous stories of how housemen were treated – and believe me, even in hospitals in Sarawak. Only problem is that the victims were reluctant to bring the cases to the attention of the authorities, for fear of reprisals. Or, if the cases were reported, they were most probably swept under the carpet as they were treated as “normal” in the medical profession!
I have a question for the authorities: How many housemen have quit the profession in Sarawak, say in the last decade, as a result of bullying and extreme workload pressure?
Don’t simply give the excuse that those who quit were not cut out to be doctors! The Ministry of Health should take this problem seriously before it really gets out of hand. Take action against the bullying seniors – even if it means sacking them and removing them from the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) and the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) lists which would effectively end their career in Malaysia.
Perhaps, an initial step would be to set up a committee to investigate bullying cases in public hospitals. The committee could also come up with guidelines to train supervisors on how to mentor and guide the housemen.
I would like to conclude with a quote from my boss, Dr Jeniri Amir, who wrote in his column Sarapan Ahad in Suara Sarawak yesterday (May 8): “Every profession has its challenges, but being bullied in the workplace is certainly not a baptism of fire. There are other, more prudent and humane ways to train. A good coach has a certain effective approach to channelling his expertise to those under him. Bullying, using abusive words and exerting extreme pressure, are definitely not the way to go. This does not mean that trainee doctors should be treated like princes. They need to be guided and trained in a reasonable way.”