Pfizer Malaysia Health Fellows Help Bridge Urban-Rural Healthcare Divide

Improvement of rural healthcare in Malaysia has always remained a priority for the government with a simple reason that, regardless of socioeconomic background or geographic locations all Malaysians should have access to basic healthcare. However, a remarkable difference in the doctor-patient ratio in the rural areas of Malaysia especially in Sabah and Sarawak continue to present a challenge for the government to provide equitable access to all rural residents.

The lack of health awareness and accessibility has also contributed to common lifestyle diseases in the remote areas of Sabah and Sarawak, the most common being high blood pressure, obesity, low bone density, high cholesterol levels and abnormal blood glucose levels.

To complement government’s public health service, Pfizer Malaysia Health Fellows program has been carrying out missions to Sabah and Sarawak since 2007 to help improve access to healthcare and health literacy in local communities through health education talk and free basic screening program.

Working with non-government organisations, Pfizer employees volunteer under the Health Fellows program to offer medical services to communities in semi-urban and rural areas around Malaysia, usually spending 5 – 8 days in remote locations.

In the recent Pfizer Malaysia Health Fellows Appreciation Ceremony, Works Minister and Sarawak State Assembly for Ba’kelalan, YB Baru Bian attended the occasion to recognize the contributions of the Health Fellows volunteers for their 12th health mission in the remote communities of Ba’kelalan – Lawas.

“As a lawyer who has been fighting for native rights in Sarawak in general and my Lun Bawang constituents in Ba’Kelalan, we greatly value Pfizer Malaysia’s initiative in carrying out a yearly health mission to East Malaysia for the past 12 years and educating the local community on the importance of health and wellness. This is indeed a commendable demonstration of a corporate company’s commitment to give back to the community through programs that improve rural communities’ health awareness and knowledge,” said Baru Bian during his appreciation remarks.

YB Baru Bian continued, “While the government continues to improve on the delivery of basic infrastructure such as hospitals, roads and bridges under my ministry, a Corporate Social Responsibility effort such as the Pfizer Malaysia Health Fellows is an effective bridge to supplement the Ministry of Health’s effort in improving healthcare access and literacy to the rural residents of Malaysia.”

Malaysia has a population of 32 million of which 24% resides in rural areas. Many remote areas in East Malaysia including Ba’kelalan, have rarely enjoyed the patronage of corporate figures and entities due to their geographical locations. While Ministry of Health Malaysia continues to strengthen the rural health services through the improvement of existing facilities and introducing new health services that range from outpatient curative care to preventive and promotive services; every year, Pfizer Malaysia ensures its commitment to reach out to these rural communities – transferring healthcare knowledge and providing free basic health screening through its CSR initiatives such as Care-A-Van, a mobile health screening van offering free screenings and healthcare to underprivileged communities in Peninsular Malaysia since 1998 and Pfizer Malaysia Health Fellows.

Commenting on the Health Fellows program, Azwar Kamarudin, Director of Corporate Affairs, Health & Value, Pfizer Malaysia said the mission carried out in Ba’kelalan this year was the 12th health mission since its inception in 2007 – having visited the extreme remote parts of Borneo and West Malaysia and screened over 6,000 individuals at 45 different locations to date.

“As a company with firm Malaysian roots, Pfizer is a responsible corporate citizen that constantly looks at making a difference in the community and place we operate in. We ensure our initiatives and programs are sustainable and fill a gap. Many rural Malaysians do not have the privilege of quick access to medical attention and treatment and most time, the rural residents have to resort to travelling long journey to the nearest town for healthcare services. What Pfizer Malaysia Health Fellows offers besides providing basic health screening is the fact that our diverse volunteers are carefully selected yearly to go on the mission and apply their healthcare knowledge and skills to educate and provide healthcare to communities where healthcare is limited or difficult to obtain.”

“While our goal in Pfizer is to save and improve lives through the development of innovative life-saving medicines, we equally value the impact we can have on the community where we operate through our CSR efforts. These are also opportunities for Pfizer employees to have a direct impact on the communities in which they live and work, thereby delivering value to our business and society,” continued Azwar.

Throughout the 12th Pfizer Malaysia Health Fellows mission, the volunteers traveled to Long Semadoh Rayeh, Long Tanid, Buduk Bui & Long Langai to screen a total of 165 children and 338 adults. The mission was carried out by 10 volunteers from Pfizer Malaysia in partnership with local non-profit organisation – Barefoot Mercy who helped identify the communities for the mission and coordinated the dental team which complemented the outreach.

Elaine Chan, Co-founder of Barefoot Mercy later shared that, “We chose communities furthest away from Lawas, the closest urban centre, as we felt the need for this programme would be the greatest there.  The communities we worked with in Long Semadoh were an obvious choice due to our existing relationships with them.  As we were trying to maximise the reach of the programme, we also extended the programme to the communities in Ba’kelalan, marking our first venture into this specific area.  Both clusters of communities are marked by an aging population due to the migration of the younger generation to urban centres, with health likely to be an issue for the population.”

“The programme of the actual outreach was ambitious, covering various locations, and it was notable that all the Pfizer volunteers remained highly focused, efficient and energetic throughout the long days they worked.  We hope they all came away with a better understanding of life in rural Sarawak which is part of what we aim to do in our efforts to connect communities across the rural-urban divide.”

In the 5-day mission, Health Fellows performed biometric cardiovascular screening and basic health education for the communities. The screening activities include blood pressure test, bone density scan, random blood sugar and total cholesterol test, medical consultations, to name a few. Children screening consist of de-worming, hair de-licing, personal hygiene demonstrations, etc. During consultation and interactions with the community, the volunteers were able to identify that some contributing factors to the residents’ health issues are related to awareness and nutrition. One of the challenges faced by the community is sourcing fresh milk, vegetables and fish which contributed to health issue such as osteoporosis. The community’s diet rich with fried food and meat also contributes to the high number of dyslipidemia cases.

Although brief, the focus of the mission is to improve the community’s health literacy through health education activities, talks and even interactions with the residents so they are able to take better care of themselves and subsequently improve their quality of life. During the screening, residents with simple ailments were given some over-the-counter medications to manage their condition and advised to visit their nearest health clinics if the condition does not improve. For patients with chronic conditions that require further inspections, follow-up or medications they were given referral letters and referred to the nearest healthcare facility with the findings from the screening.