GEORGE TOWN - More than 600 Indonesians used to frequent just one of the pharmacies in Penang almost daily, with each spending as much as RM1,000 (S$325) on medications.
This was before Malaysia closed its borders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Their doctors give them prescriptions for medicines for three to six months," said pharmacist Mah Choon Leng, adding that not all of the drugs they bought here were available in Indonesia.
"I pity some of them now. Imagine running out of blood pressure or heart medication and there is no way to buy it in your country.
"They call us and try to order, but there is not much we can do," said Mah, the managing director of a chain of six pharmacies in Penang.
He said coming to the state for medical treatment was not a matter of leisure for middle- and upper-class Indonesians.
"They really need to come here for surgery and medications as their country's healthcare system is not so advanced," he said, adding that sales at his pharmacies fell by as much as 80 per cent during the strictest phases of the movement control order.
Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr HY Lam agreed with Mah.PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network
"I wouldn't say my Indonesian heart patients are medical tourists. A medical tourist is someone here partially for a holiday while getting something like a root canal, a nose job or breast enhancement.
"When an Indonesian comes to us with heart problems, it is usually at a serious stage, requiring urgent surgery if he or she wants to live," said Dr Lam, who practises at Lam Wah Ee Hospital.
He said some of his Indonesian heart patients had been calling him with complaints of chest pains.
He sensed that treatment was needed, but there was nothing he could do with the borders closed.
But he said most of his colleagues shared the worry about letting Indonesian patients into Malaysia because of the Covid-19 infection rate in the neighbouring country.
Another cardiothoracic surgeon, Datuk Dr Basheer Ahamed Abdul Kareem, has been teleconferencing with his Indonesian patients to check on their post-surgery recovery.
Dr Basheer Ahamed is the cardiothoracic unit head of Penang Hospital and engages in partial private practice.
"Patients we have operated on will find it therapeutic to speak with us even via teleconferencing. We just need to talk with them and check on their surgical wounds," he said.
Consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Gan Kam Ling said though she had Indonesian patients waiting to see her too, she felt there must be mandatory quarantine upon arrival, even if they initially tested negative.
"The government must impose this. We have to care for Malaysians first. Indonesia is far from safe from Covid-19," said Dr Gan, who practises at Gleneagles Hospital Penang.
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