KUALA LUMPUR, July 5 ― Several doctors have downplayed the significance of the SPM-level Bahasa Malaysia (BM) qualification in their everyday practice, despite complaints by pro-Bumiputera groups against the Health Ministry relaxing the prerequisite for contract housemen.
According to the doctors polled, it was unfair to judge their competency and their language proficiency based on their performance in secondary school. They insisted that such practical skills are usually picked up on the job rather than in schools.
“When you see a doctor, you want someone who is not going to cause you any harm, and will be able to help you with the problem you have,” said Dr Helmy Haja Mydin, a consultant respiratory physician at a private hospital here.
“By the time someone graduates from medical school, one hopes that the graduates are safe, know how to ask for help, have the capacity to think critically, is able to learn and adapt, and of course communicate effectively.”
“These are criteria that should be given more importance rather than the results of an exam that was taken before medical school,” the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs associate added.
Like Dr Helmy, Dr Khoo Yoong Khean agreed that while BM crossed most racial barriers among locals, the reality was that doctors regularly face language barriers as not all patients can comfortably converse in the language when it comes to their health.
“In local context, of course BM is essential. But note that not all patients know BM and with migrant workers and foreign tourists coming to Malaysia, language barriers are also part and parcel of our work,” said the medical officer, who works in a tertiary care centre in the Klang Valley.
Dr Khoo said when faced with such situations, doctors “just need to work around it” such as relying on translators and taking extra care, merely to do their best to help their patients.
“No one taught us the colloquial terms for stroke, hernia, et cetera during Form 5, so we work and we learn. It's all part of the learning curve working in any local community,” said the managing editor of online publication Malaysian Medical Gazette.
“If I were able to choose, I would like to learn all local languages, dialects, slang and colloquial terms. But that's not practical, so I learn on the job.”
“I never knew of words like 'semput' from my SPM days,” Dr Helmy concurred, referring to dyspnea, or shortness of breath.
Last Sunday, Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah explained that the relaxation of rule for the appointment of a Grade UD41 Medical Officer on contract was to facilitate those who have not sat for the examination for various reasons.
Dr Noor Hisham said this included medical graduates who studied abroad, those who sat for O-Level examination at international schools, or took the BM subject at university.
His remark was lambasted among others by representatives from Umno Youth, Overseas Umno Clubs Alumni, and Islamist groups Abim and Pembina, who claimed the move sidelined the national language and caused possible communication problems with patients.
This is despite the same relaxation of requirements for foreign medical officers or physicians, and contract medical officers all this while. In addition, the requirement stays for the appointment of permanent medical officers under the ministry.
“All of them get a two-year contract now, should they intend to pursue a permanent post in the near future, they can easily take the BM paper within their contract period.
“Key is to get them working so they don't waste time and the nation gets the most important thing: a doctor's service,” Dr Khoo said.
On Monday, the Malaysian Medical Association said the decision would allow 300 to 400 medical graduates to undergo two-year graduate training and another two-year of mandatory service under the ministry.
Currently, the doctor-to-patient ratio in Malaysia is reported to be at 1:600, compared to Putrajaya’s target of 1:400 by 2020.
Meanwhile, Dr Helmy pointed out that for doctors, communication skills are not limited to just language, but encompasses other equally important aspects such as the ability to listen attentively.
“Old SPM results may not be necessarily reflective of one's current ability to communicate. If the concerns of critics are one's ability to communicate in BM, then it would make more sense to have some sort of entrance or professional exam for doctors to take.
“It would make more sense to have some sort of on-the-job assessment to ensure communication is not an issue. In the United Kingdom, you have to sit for IELTS if you're not locally trained, but they don't make you sit for the GCSEs,” he said.
IELTS refers to the International English Language Testing System, an international standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native speakers. GSCE stands for the General Certificate of Secondary Education, the British equivalent of SPM.
Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S Subramaniam has since said he will explain the matter in detail to the Cabinet today, claiming many have misunderstood the issue despite Dr Noor Hisham’s explanations.