Overcrowded and under-funded general hospitals like the Penang Hospital are finding it difficult to cope with the crowds, writes Susan Loone of Malaysiakini.
There is a running joke among patients that the Orthopaedic clinic in the Penang General Hospital (GH) is akin to a fish market.
The wisecrack, however, applies to other clinics in the government hospital as well, including its pharmacies.
Patients arrive as early as 6am to place their cards at the counter and to book seats, which are insufficient, as they are usually accompanied by kin or helpers.
Even by 9am, most of the patients have yet to be issued a number to see their doctors.
The waiting and hunger (shops within the GH opens only at 8am) make the patients, especially senior citizens, restless, anxious and frustrated.
A patient, spotting a plastered arm, said his only son sent him to the hospital at 6.30am before breakfast, and left him there to go to work.
“He could not stay as he had to rush to work. Work is hard to come by these days. One can’t be absent unnecessarily.
“Besides he is the only bread winner in the family,” said the forlorn pensioner, who wanted to be known only as Uncle Lee.
War zone-like counter
The counter behind a glass window where numbers are given out is like a war zone.
There are only two clerks manning the counter; they appeared to be overwhelmed with the workload though it was still early in the day.
Their tolerance was further tested by patients or their kin and helpers crowding in front of the counter waiting for their names to be called.
Despite being in crutches or plasters, many tried to shove RM5 at the clerks to get priority for their numbers.
RM5 is the amount paid for the hospital services by patients who are not civil servants, while pensioners are exempted, they need only to show their pension cards.
The jostling led to a minor shouting match between patients at one point with one saying, “Get out of the counter, don’t crowd the place…my name is being called but I can’t even get to the counter!”.
Other patients, especially the wheelchair bound, appear frustrated because their journey into the clinic is a nightmare in itself.
Nightmarish journey for handicapped
Their pathways are literally blocked by the crowd, in no mood to queue up, shoving and pushing to get their numbers.
The patients expressed fear, and some have experienced passers-by crashing into their plastered feet or legs, compounding their problems.
After struggling through the hurdle of getting one’s number and card, a patient is huddled into the doctor’s area.
The narrow room is another market place, albeit a tiny one, where patients, doctors and nurses are sardine packed into a 10×10 ft space.
This is impractical for an orthopedic ward, especially for in crutches and wheelchairs, who need a wider space to move around.
A doctor admitted that “the place is a mess. People have to complain or else things will not improve’.
The doctors are young and appear very kind when tending to their patients, irrespective of ethnicity or age groups.
Former Aliran president P Ramakrishnan, who was at the ward over a shoulder problem, pointed out that there is no one to guide the patients, resulting in the jam along the entrance.
Lack of guidance is a problem that another orthopedic patient, a retired nurse, soon found out.
After obediently queuing up for a number to collect her medication, she was told to go to another counter several rooms away.
Being wheelchair-bound and with pain in her right leg, this was an annoying task, as she had already been at the hospital for three hours, moving from one section to another.
“Go to room 014A, the pharmacist said, they (orthopedic clinic) have their own medicines there. How the hell am I supposed to know that?” she asked, exasperated.
“They should have told us at the clinic itself. I am wheelchair bound and yet I have to move three to four places before I can complete my visit,’ Madam SS Chong exclaimed, flabbergasted.
Five-fold rise in patients
When contacted, the Penang GH Board of Visitors representative Tan Khai Beng said this was a familiar scene not only in the government but private hospitals as well.
He added that early birds want to be the earliest to see the consultants for fear of being scheduled later in the afternoons, usually after lunch.
The consultants, he said, would normally see their first patients at around 10.30am after their ward rounds, a normal occurrence at all hospitals.
“We have discussed this issue with the GH as we are aware of this problem and the hospital is looking into this with the view of having at least a specialist around for consultations,” he told Malaysiakini.
Tan said of late there had been an over whelming number of patients, whose figures had jumped significantly from around 2000 in 2008 to about 10000 patients per day now.
The hospital is finding it difficult to cope with these influx and parking remains a great problem despite the new multi-storey car park, he added.
“All the clinics have been expanded drastically to cope with the influx and during Chinese New Year, it was worse as many were on leave, leaving only a few nurses to cope,” he said.
Priority for wheelchair-bound patients
As for tiny consultation rooms, Tan said the hospital is short of space and the Health Ministry is considering a proposal to put up an 11-storey block.
“For now everyone has to live with it,” said the Bukit Bendera MCA division deputy chief.
On a related matter, Tan said wheelchair-bound patients were given priority, and “they need only ask”.
He added that patients also need to ask their doctors for information or else they would be presumed to be aware of the situation.
He was referring specifically to the ex-nurse’s complaint that she did not know where to collect her medication as the pharmacy gave her the run-around despite being wheelchair-bound.
“If she doesn’t know too bad ..she needs to ask around or if it is the first time, ask the doctor where to get the medicines,” he explained.
“If you don’t ask the doctor, they would have presumed she knew because there’re simply too many patients waiting to see them.”