Malaysia has called for more oncologists, radiologists and other medical professionals to treat cancer patients. Currently, there is less than half of the number needed.

Malaysian Oncological Society president Dr Matin Mellor Abdullah said there are between 105 and 110 of such doctors in both public and private sectors. The recommended ratio of oncologists to the population is eight to 10 to one million citizens, therefore Malaysia will need at least 240 cancer specialists to meet that target as the Malaysian population stood at 31 million as of last year, said Dr Matin, adding that it was an ongoing problem.

"Therefore, we will need to have between 240 and 300 oncologists," he said.

Dr Matin added that the country needed to look at various measures to improve the number, such as calling Malaysian oncologists working overseas to return home.

He also said that the quality of cancer treatment also varies, depending on location, to some extent.

"Oncologists are mostly located in the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. Therefore, it is possible that patients outside these areas may not be able to access treatment in a timely fashion," said Dr Matin.

It has also been reported that there will be an expected 54% increase in the number of new cancer cases by 2025 and the Malaysian population is expected to be an ageing society by 2035.

An ongoing problem that needs speedy remedies

Last year, Deputy Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya said that there were only 26 such specialists in government hospitals - and is predicted to rise.

The lack of medical professionals involved in cancer treatment will be addressed in the Ministry of Health's (MOH) updated cancer control plan - which is currently still being finalised.

Currently, the ministry is encouraging students to take up oncology by increasing scholarships and facilitating training programmes. However it also said that the battle against cancer is dependent on Malaysians being mindful of their health and realising that early diagnosis and detection can increase chances of survival and recovery.

It is reported that only a mere 6.6% of Malaysian adults aged 18 and above had adequate health literacy, or knowledge in maintaining good health, based on the MOH's National Health and Morbidity Survey in 2015.

Oncology can be a "depressing" field

Dr Matin also pointed out that oncology is "not a preferred specialty" as some say it can be a "depressing" field, especially if their patients are diagnosed with the disease in late stages. Therefore more effort needs to be taken to highlight the shortfall to boost numbers of specialists in this field. 

"More promotional incentives and more senior positions should also be created for this field," he suggests.

However, National Cancer Society Malaysia president Dr Saunthari Somasundaram argues that the profession can be rewarding too.

"Cancer treatment can be a long term process. It isn't just about treating the patients in a medical sense but also managing the families because it impacts them too," she said.

Malaysian Medical Association president Dr John Chew says that the lack of oncologists is a huge burden for the country as such doctors and relevant supporting professionals are especially important with cancer becoming more prevalent with an ageing population.

Resources needed  to build capacity for more medical professionals

"We do not have a social support network to look after this increased burden. Sure, we need to train more oncologists but this also means that more resources are needed," he said, "This includes setting up more centres and bigger budgets for chemotherapy, immunotherapy and diagnostics."

He agreed that the most cost-effective strategy in combating cancer is through prevention methods and using proven population screening such as encouraging citizens to screen regularly for cervical, breast and colon cancer.

Health Ministry deputy director-general Datuk Dr Jeyaindran Sinnadurai assures that the cancer control plan is in its final stages and is just awaiting the director-general and minister for endorsement.

The plan will include working towards increasing the number of medical professionals involved in the treatment of cancer by building the capacity to provide for more oncologists, radiotherapists, palliative care doctors and support staff to be able to deliver care for cancer patients in a comprehensive and holistic manner, he said. MIMS

Read more:
What is preventative healthcare and can it save lives?
Many new cancer drugs not listed on MOH Malaysia’s Formulary
Malaysia's MOH to review cancer treatment fees in government hospitals