On the face of it, 2016 should have been the year of healthy living, with delivery services offering food such as salads and acai bowls, and an increased devotion to workouts, with a resultant cornucopia of terms such as High Intensity Interval Training and Low Intensity Steady State workouts gaining traction.
At the start of last year, many surely made resolutions to eat better and live a more active lifestyle, often with the disclaimer that it was “not to lose weight but to live healthier”. Much money was spent on gym memberships and specialised sportswear, but they were mostly left unused.
While there may have been some individual exceptions, in general, Malaysians did not get very much healthier in 2016.
Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president, Dr John Chew, tells The Star that the top three diseases Malaysians are most prone to are all lifestyle-related.
These include cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes, in addition to cancer and mental health problems.
“Yes, infectious diseases such as dengue and tuberculosis are still quite serious, but it must be noted that the top three diseases over the year were, again, lifestyle diseases,” he says.
Malaysians need to take their health more seriously this year, Dr Chew advises.
“So many are so comfortable in just eating whatever they want, then taking prescription drugs to help them.
“I have patients who come ahead of certain times of the year, asking for (blood) pressure and cholesterol medication, just so that they can take it as a ‘precautionary’ aid to help them enjoy whatever they want.
“In addition, many of them are comfortable living a sedentary lifestyle which is often paired with habits like drinking and smoking, all of which simply creates a formula for death,” he argues.
He stresses that more Malaysians should ensure they go for regular medical checkups.
“That is the only way for them to know how much damage is being done to the body. People often take their health for granted because they don’t know what is happening.
“But if they see, in black-and-white, that their cholesterol level has exceeded 4.0 or that their blood sugar is unbelievably high, then it would serve as a wakeup call for them to get their lifestyle in check,” he adds.
Dr Chew says people should not allow their body to reach that point before making a change to their lifestyle, but rather should start as soon as they can, as it is not easy to fix the damage.
According to him, this year is expected to be a more challenging one in terms of healthcare.
“It is going to be another difficult year as climate change, with its uncertain health implications, will continue.
“The problem with air pollution will only be made obvious many years later,” he notes.
Budget boost, but …
In its Budget 2015, the Malaysian Government allocated RM23.31bil to healthcare, but funding under Bud-get 2016 was reduced to RM23.03bil.
The drop in the healthcare budget drew flak from Opposition parties which alleged that many hospitals did not have sufficient funds and so had stopped conducting pathology tests and Hepatitis B screening for pregnant women.
The budget cut was promptly reversed, and when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, also the Finance Minister, announced Budget 2017, RM25bil was allocated for the healthcare sector.
While lauding the increase, health experts feel the amount is not sufficient for the country’s growing population.
“The Government should increase the budget allocation to the Health Ministry from the present 4.2% of gross domestic product (GDP),” says former MMA president Prof Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan.
“Note that the United States gets a hefty 20% of GDP allocation for healthcare whilst the global average is about 8%.
“In Malaysia it is a paltry 4.2%, of which the private sector contributes almost 50%,” he says.
He also suggests that the Health Ministry get a separate budget allocation for the maintenance and upgrading of healthcare facilities nationwide.
“Providing healthcare and spending on upgrades and maintenance whilst providing satisfactory healthcare, is an onerous task.
“As for the upgrading of facilities, it probably takes a backseat with the budget that the ministry receives.
“Thus, it is not surprising that upgrades are neglected as there is an insufficient allocation to the ministry,” he says.
Dr Tharmaseelan believes that the Health Ministry needs an increase of at least 20% to 30% specifically for upgrading and maintaining healthcare facilities.
He, however, adds that the Malaysian healthcare sector has done well even with its tight budget.
“We should be proud, (because) even with these budgetary constraints, the Health Ministry has provided excellent healthcare,” he says.