Everyone knows that the people you see when you get sick are called “doctors”. Sure, we call people with Phds “doctors” as well, but we don’t go to them to get treated. But we’re not concerned with PhDs. What we’re looking for is the distinction on what it takes to be a Dr (MD), the one that practices medicine and gives you MCs when you’re sick.
However, since we’re Asians, it’s ingrained in us to look for alternatives such as traditional medicine specialist for herbal remedies and traditional treatments. Some of us might even trust them more than a regular doctor. So the question is: Is it legal for traditional medical practitioners to call themselves “doctors”?
What you need to know is that both experts in modern medicine and traditional medicine have to be legally registered to practice, although they are allowed to use different titles under law.
Only doctors qualified to practice modern medicine can be called “doctors”
A person who calls themselves “doctor” must be qualified and duly registered under the Medical Act 1971 with qualifications recognized by the Malaysian Medical Council. There’s even a list of the exact medical degrees from universities all over the world that Malaysia recognizes, but even unlisted degrees can be approved separately by the Council.
Under Section 33 of the Medical Act, it is illegal for anyone who is not registered as a doctor to:
Pretend to be registered or qualified to practice medicine or surgery
Take any title or name (like “doctor”), or do anything that misleads others to think that they are a qualified doctor
Actually practice medicine or surgery
Use the word “clinic”, “dispensary”, or “hospital” to describe where they work
Use a symbol that’s designated for registered doctors to use only
The penalty for doing so is a fine of up to RM2,000 for first offences, and up to RM5,000 and/or up to 2 years of jail for repeat offences. If the offence continues over a period of time, there’s an additional RM50 per day fine on top of that.
How do you tell if your doctor is really a doctor?
Short of contacting the Malaysian Medical Council and checking with their registry, how do you tell if your doctor is legit?
Doctors are referred to generally as “medical practitioners” in the law, and are required by Rule 33 of the Medical Regulations 2017 to state their practitioner registration number on all prescriptions, documents, and records relating to their practice. Failing to do so can result in disciplinary action from the Council.
Other than checking on the documents mentioned, looking out for their framed up medical degree is another way to “check” since a recognized degree is one of the requirements for doctors to get their license.
You might be wondering at point why we haven’t mentioned incidences of fake dentists like the case of Nur Farahanis, that’s because they’re not “doctors” and are regulated by a different law - the Dental Act 2018, which was drafted exactly because of these incidences of fake dentists.
That covers modern medical doctors, but traditional medicine practitioners have to be registered as well.
Traditional medicine practitioners cannot call themselves “doctor”
Traditional medicine practitioners are recognized medical providers in Malaysia despite the existence of modern medicine. As stated in Section 34 of the Medical Act, these are those who practise:
Fun fact - One special exception that traditional practitioners are not allowed to treat is diseases of the human eye, which is stated in Section 34(2) - only certified “doctors” are allowed to. Don’t worry though, your spectacle shops are not doing anything illegal as testing your eyes and providing spectacles are exempted from this.
But… Traditional practitioners can only go by the name of “practitioner” and cannot use “doctor” as their title. They need to be properly registered under the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Act 2016 in a recognized area of practice (to avoid abuse by people who invent their “own style”). Practicing in a non-recognized area carries a penalty of up to RM30,000 and/or up to 2 years of prison for first offences, and up to RM50,000 and/or up to 3 years of prison for repeat offences.
Be wary of quack doctors who promise miracle cures
This is where some quack doctors have gone around claiming strange concoctions and possibly illegal supplements will cure diseases of all sorts, like this tragic incident of a woman whose death might have been quickened by the quack doctor’s “treatments”. She had been offered chlorophyll water and bottles of supplements with labels that were either blacked out with marker pen or homemade, eventually leading to her death.
All medical and cosmetic products in Malaysia must be registered with the Ministry of Health, which come with a Meditag hologram (the Ministry of Health has an app to help you check them). You can also search the list of registered medical products here to see if what you’re being offered is legit.
There are a lot of drugs out there which hide under the name of “traditional” and “herbal” medicine by mixing real traditional and herbal medicine with illegal drugs - so it pays to be careful when dealing with any product out there. It’s a lot safer to get your medicine from legal healthcare providers (your reputable doctors, traditional practitioners, and pharmacists), as they are legally obligated to make sure they don’t stock illegal medicine, which could end up harming you.