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Winner of award named after Malayan ‘plague fighter’ says driven to help less fortunate

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — Winner of the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Award for the Best Student in Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) in Universiti Malaya Dr Esther Wong Min Fui said she developed her passion for public health and addressing poverty after seeing what some patients had to do in order to afford treatment.

In an interview with Malay Mail, Dr Wong recounted her time serving in a district hospital in Sabah, when she witnessed patients from rural areas bring sago worms to sell when they visited the hospital just so they could pay for their way home.

“The (rural patients) have to spend a few days in the area before they are seen by the medical officers (MOs).

“So, they will bring sago worms to sell to us so that they can pay for their return home,” she said.

Dr Wong said she would buy the sago worms, even though she did not eat them, as a way to help her patients.

Not wanting to let the worms go to waste, she would then offer them to a nurse who did consume them.

“These are the experiences that keep me wanting to explore further in the field of mental health,” she said.

On March 3, Dr Wong was conferred the award by the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society for her thesis project on the digital psychosocial intervention for low-income urban dwellers, edging out six other finalists.

The award was created in 2021 and named after Dr Wu, a prominent public health physician and an internationally acclaimed plague fighter as well as the first nominee from Malaya to be considered for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1935.

Speaking to Malay Mail, Dr Wong said it was crucial to think of ways to help the less fortunate obtain the services and treatments that others in society may take for granted.

On March 3, Dr Wong was conferred the award by the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society for her thesis project on the digital psychosocial intervention for low-income urban dwellers, edging out six other finalists. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
On March 3, Dr Wong was conferred the award by the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society for her thesis project on the digital psychosocial intervention for low-income urban dwellers, edging out six other finalists. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

On March 3, Dr Wong was conferred the award by the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society for her thesis project on the digital psychosocial intervention for low-income urban dwellers, edging out six other finalists. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

“These are the vulnerable groups that we have to help fight for their rights and think of a way to reduce the gaps to get them the help they need,” she said.

Research such as hers was among the ways that those in the medical field could give voice to those in need and discover ways to design beneficial interventions, she added.

The need to narrow the cracks that the underprivileged could fall through was especially urgent in East Malaysia, the Sabah-born doctor said.

“In Sabah I think we currently still have these issues because of the gaps and inequities in the healthcare delivery system,” she said.

It was not just poverty but also the infrastructure and policies, she explained.

The issue of the poor neglecting their health was a particularly complex issue and there were many barriers to treatment, she said.

She related a story about an older man she had referred to a government hospital for his mental health.

However, after he was treated by the psychiatrist at the hospital, he found that he had been issued a parking summons for parking illegally because he could not find parking before his appointment.

He returned to Dr Wong to tell her that he would never go to that hospital again for treatment because of his experience, she said.

“These are the cases of the poor and what causes them to neglect the healthcare they need,” she said, adding that she found the issue very sad.

Most of those who availed themselves of the services of government hospitals were from the B40 after all and that is what she is inspired by as a healthcare worker, she said.

“But in this line of work, you have to have passion and interest. If not, you will become burnt out,” she added.