Ms Farah Dina Abdullah was taking care of her three-month-old nephew one day when he suddenly cried loudly and looked tense.
His family rushed him to a private clinic where a doctor said the baby had a seizure and sent him home with medication.
The doctor’s visit left Ms Farah, a 27-year-old PhD student, dissatisfied. She felt the doctor had not fully answered her questions.
Ms Farah turned to a group of Malaysian paediatricians who dispense free advice online, on a website called DoktorBudak.com, or kids’ doctor in Malay.
The pediatricians recommended that her nephew go to a hospital immediately to have his brain checked as there could be some tissue damage that caused the seizure.
“The doctors at DoktorBudak were right...had we delayed treatment, my nephew would have become much worse,” she told The Straits Times via email on Tuesday (Jan14). “My nephew is recovered and growing well like other kids.”
Every day, parents around the world, including in Malaysia, search online for information on everything from how to cope with a child’s tantrums to why a child might have a prolonged cough.
Not everything they find may be accurate.
This is where DoktorBudak.com comes in. An outreach programme started six months ago by a group of Malaysian paediatricians mostly from the civil service, the site offers a place for parents to ask questions about their children’s medical condition and for doctors to answer – for free.
It is not meant to take the place of a doctor’s consultation, and parents are usually advised to take their kids to see a doctor. The website also suggests questions parents should ask doctors when seeking treatment.
The website is in English and Bahasa Malaysia. Some parents from as far as Indonesia and Singapore write in too.
A team of 18 paediatricians and other health experts such as dentists, psychiatrists, speech therapists and nutritionists contribute in their personal time.
The project is spearheaded by Dr Zahilah Filzah Zulkifli, 35, a paediatrician in a government hospital, who also heads a medical team specialising on child abuse and neglect cases there.
Many doctors are too swamped to spend as much time as they would like answering patients’ questions, said Dr Zahilah.
Many parents in turn tend not to tell their doctors if the treatment for the children does not work, preferring to seek out other doctors instead. This may result in each doctor having an incomplete picture of the patient’s condition.
While the idea of giving online medical advice and consultation is common in countries such as the United States, Dr Zahilah said, DoktorBudak is the first to do so in Malaysia.
Parents post dozens of questions on the website each week. Dr Zahilah said DoktorBudak.com’s Facebook page has already garnered more than 4,000 Likes while its blog has received 250,000 page views in the six months since it’s been up.
“Parents and caretakers are yearning for information from reliable sources, that is, practising doctors,” she told The Straits Times in an interview recently. “We want to fill the gaps by helping parents understand their children’s health conditions to make informed decisions when seeing a doctor.”
Over the years, Malaysia’s programmes for child health have improved, vaccination programs well in place. The government said it is likely to achieve an under-five child mortality rate of 5.6 per 1,000 live births by 2015- similar to developed countries.
At local hospitals, doctors regularly organise health seminars and talks on child health.
Ms Sharifah Nafisah, 27, a regular reader of DoktorBudak.com, said many working parents like her do not have time to attend these.
“I still find that the Internet is the most accessible for information as we are connected to it 24 hours a day,” she told The Straits Times via email.
Dr Zahilah said awareness of common childhood illnesses is still low among Malaysian parents. Many do not respond quickly enough. “More often than not, children having diarrhea were only brought in to hospitals suffering also from dehydration because their parents did not know how to administer oral rehydration salts to them before seeking medical treatment,” she said.
She said she hopes the website will empower parents and caretakers and in the long run, children themselves, as the older ones may also search for medical information online.
Ms Soliha Kezuwani, 32, an engineer, said reading articles from DoktorBudak.com gives her peace of mind on child health issues.
“Of course, I will still consult a doctor physically,” she told The Straits Times. “But, knowing that there are faces -real, practising doctors- behind the website makes it all the more reliable.”