Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Not-So-Special "Specialist"

There was once when my brother's wife had an ectopic pregnancy and it became necessary to have an operation. He called me up for help, saying that he intended to admit her to the then Sabah Medical Centre (now KPJ Specialist Hospital) for the operation. For those who're not familiar with Kota Kinabalu (KK), the KPJ is a private hospital and quite well-known, as the name suggests, as a "specialist" hospital. Being a private hospital, it's not difficult to appreciate the fact that treatments can cost substantially higher than that of a government hospital like the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH).

I don't always hear from my brother, but when I do, it's almost always because he needs my help—financially. I asked him why not do it in QEH, since it's much more affordable, and therefore more agreeable with his pocket. But no, he wanted a specialist to handle the operation. I decided that he should learn to live within his means. After all, it's not like there was no alternative for him. He tried to find help elsewhere, but in the end, left with no choice, he admitted his wife to QEH. The operation was a success anyway, just as I had expected.

That word "specialist" has a profound effect on many people. Some people I know would fly to Singapore to seek treatments at so-called specialist centres even though such treatments are readily available here in KK. There is that tendency to think that a specialist is more knowledgeable and skillful than a non-specialist. But truth be told, that is not necessarily the case.

Mia had some of her teeth filled when she was a teenager. It must have been a very good job, as she had no issues with her teeth of a little over 30 years. However, last year she started to feel a bit of pain whenever she bit on those teeth. She also experienced some discomfort whenever she consumed cold drinks. I suggested that she should see a dentist who did a good job in dealing with my dental problems. But unfortunately, he's not a "specialist" dentist.

Mia was doubtful with my recommendation. In the end, she went to a specialist dentist. She told the dentist that perhaps it's time to redo the fillings in her teeth, as she's experiencing some pain arising from them. She had her teeth x-rayed, cleaned and polished, and then told that she had "sensitive teeth". She was then given a "tooth mousse" to be smeared over her teeth to solve the "sensitive teeth" problems; as well as gum gels. According to the specialist, if the problem persisted, the next step would be to make a special container in the shape of her gums which would then be filled with fluoride, and this would then be used on her teeth. That sophisticated container would have cost about RM1,000 to make.

Mia continued using the tooth mousse and gum gels for a few months, but the pain kept worsening. She told me about her ordeal, and again I told her to seek help from my dentist. Instead, she went to another dentist. The second dentist was not a specialist. But the mere mention of the previous visits to the "specialist dentist" made the second dentist a bit reserved. She seemed to support the opinions of the specialist dentist without really investigating Mia's problem.

Mia came home that day feeling rather disappointed. It just kept becoming worse to the extent that she was no longer able to bite on those teeth because of unbearable pain. In the end, after RM1,100 spent on the specialist dentist, she finally went to seek help from my dentist. He spent about an hour to drill through those 30-year-old fillings, find decays in them, clean the cavities, and then refill the teeth. It was a much simpler and direct approach than the tooth mousse, gum gels and custom-made gum containers. It was also much cheaper, and most importantly, there is now no more toothache.

Most professionals in Malaysia are regulated to practise with strict guidelines as professionals. But many professionals are also businessmen. In due course, we professionals are bound to come to a point where it is increasingly difficult to draw the line between professionalism and entrepreneurship; these two forces may seem to be conflicting at times. Sometimes, it is necessary for us to revisit the question of why we wanted to be whatever it is that we're doing as a profession. Was it because we wanted to help others while earning a living in the process; or was it because we wanted the make money even if we're not really helping others?

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