On a recent visit to a friend admitted to the largest hospital in the south, Hospital Sultanah Aminah in Johor Bahru, I fell into conversation with several other patients and hospital staff in the ward.
Many of them were saying they felt at a loss. They had been told the hospital budget had run so low that, over several weeks, treatment had been suspended for many common illnesses because there was "no more budget" to buy basic medicines.
Several patients reported that they had been forced to buy their own medicines in private pharmacies.
One patient said she had been asked to pay for a standard blood test to measure calcium, because the hospital laboratory had no more money to run the test.
According to a staff member, the hospital had suspended up to twenty different basic blood tests, including tests for the kidneys and liver function, thyroid hormones, and blood markers to detect heart attacks, over the past few weeks.
A patient told me that ‘non-emergency' operations had been cancelled because of a lack of resources. One staff member said the hospital had run out of money to buy the inhaled gas medicine needed to make patients unconscious for surgery: the operating theatre had literally "run out of gas".
Another care-giver said the operating theatre was also experiencing severe shortages of gloves, plastic tubes for giving drips, and even tubes that allowed patients to breathe when they were asleep during surgery. All the resources had to be saved for emergency operations.
As a result, a number of patients with cancer said they had had their cancer surgery postponed indefinitely. When the patients asked when their surgery would be done, they were unable to obtain a firm date, because it was unclear when a new budget would become available.
One patient said her doctor offered her an operation in Seremban instead of Johor Bahru.
A member of staff mentioned that such budget shortages are commonplace at the end of every year, in most government hospitals around the country.
But this year's problems were particularly severe because of drastic budget cuts. The patients and staff were extremely unhappy, but apparently felt helpless.
I understand the hospitals must be facing a squeeze because of our national budget deficit. But is there not some way to ensure our resources are prioritised appropriately?
Can we not ensure some safeguard so that our government hospital patients are not put at risk, and forced to seek treatment or blood tests in private medical facilities? Many of the patients I saw on the ward were elderly and poor.
Why have our medical and nursing professions failed to speak up against these injustices? Why has our mass media failed to highlight these problems faced by ill patients?