Prof Dr Woo Yin Ling walks with a steady, rapid stride, determined not to lose even a second in completing her researches.
She leads the way into her cosy room in the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) and looks utterly comfortable surrounded by piles of books, papers and test kits.
The gynaecological oncologist in the medical centre, who also leads many different cancer-related researches at University of Malaya (UM), is on a mission to reduce, if not completely eradicate cervical cancer in Malaysia.
Cervical cancer is the currently the third most common cancer in Malaysia
and also the third leading cause of death among Malaysian women
. Over 99 per cent of cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Dr Woo’s determination is one of the driving forces behind the idea of introducing a special kind of cervical cancer screening for Malaysian women.
According to Dr Woo with the introduction of the new type of screening, women will not be fearful about pap smears anymore.
Why? Because they can do the pap smear themselves, in the privacy of their homes.
In conjunction with the Cervical Health Awareness Month, Rojak Daily
caught up with the busy doctor to find out more about her passion to educate women on health, provide better healthcare for them and how these self-test kits can see a reduced number of cervical cancers in the future.
Self-screening is possible
Almost every single health pamphlet that you come across will never fail to remind you to do a pap smear once you turn 21, or if you are sexually active.
However, just thinking about doing a pap smear will make any woman feel squirmish.
Imagine lying on a cold metal bed, in a position that makes all women uncomfortable - with your legs spread apart, for your doctor to insert a speculum to extract sample cells from you.
Immediately, you decide that you are never, ever going to do a pap smear.
If there is one person who understands this situation well, it is Dr Woo.
“Who said Malaysian women are not taking care of themselves? I think in our setting, the process is very invasive. Even I am afraid of pap smears, what more normal women!” Dr Woo declared.
Dr Woo said the fear and the uncomfortable test is a major factor that drives women away from doing pap smears.
Keeping this in mind, Dr Woo championed the project of introducing pap smear self-test kits for women in Malaysia.
"Actually, these self-kits are not a new thing at all. In countries like Australia, the self-kits are part of the national plan, called the national cervical screening test. The self-kits are used in the country for those who do not want to have doctors examine them,” she said.
In Malaysia, the research team at University Malaya, together with the Health Ministry, conducted a collaborative research to see if the approach can be adopted here.
“We distributed the self-kits to over 1,000 women between 2014 to 2016 and we asked them to try it out. We wanted to see if they can accept such a method.
“The result of the study was very positive. The respondents said they actually prefer doing the tests themselves, at the comfort of their homes,” she said.
Dr Woo explained that the self-kits are extremely easy to use.
“There are a lot of models but generally the testers or swab are smaller than a tampon, hence, they are less invasive.
“You just have to follow the instructions in the manual that comes with the test kits and you will be done in no time at all. You can send the swabs to the clinic or labs for testing after you are done,” she said.
Dr Woo said somewhere around next month, a second study will be conducted on more women.
More studies and tests
“We are planning to extend the tests to over 2000 women who visit clinics, targeting women between 21-years-old to 63 years-old. We need to further strengthen the test before fully implementing it here.
“The technology is already available and it is just a question of systemic implementation.
“However, new changes like this cannot happen overnight,” she said.
She said what this means for Malaysian women is, as a developing nation, the country is moving forward by embracing technology especially when it comes to healthcare.
“Our school health is very strong. We are the first in Asia to have a school-based vaccination programme against cervical cancer since 2010.
“Because we the first in that, we are also aiming to be the first in the region to start an effective cervical screening,” she said.
However, the plan to roll out these do-it-yourself kits are still a long way off, Dr Woo told us.
"Research is ongoing and hopefully, it will be available in Malaysia in the next five years."
Incorporating technology into healthcare
Dr Woo told us that even when the kits are rolled out, her work is not done. She added that there are even more plans to take it up a notch higher.
“Because everything is very technology based nowadays, we are planning to document more.
“Last time, when women go for pap smears in clinics, they will have to wait anxiously for the result which might take more than two weeks. Moreover, the women will be told that they will only be hearing from the clinics if there is something wrong with the result."
In the near future, Dr Woo is looking at introducing a more responsive and systematic registry system or a mobile e-health app.
According to Dr Woo, the process is simple: when women sign up to use the system, all their health details will be recorded and instead of waiting for more than two weeks for the results, the medical staff will use text messages to deliver their health statuses to them.
“Even if their results are normal, they will know it through text messages. This empowers women to take charge of their health.
“In a way, this also removes workload off the staff as a lot of manpower is require dto do it the manual way.
“However, more extensive research is needed for this plan to see if it is feasible and cost-effective. If it works, we will roll it out in stages,” she explained.
The future is indeed bright
With all these in store for the future, there is definitely a ray of hope in eradicating cervical cancer.
And Dr Woo believes that there's a great chance that humanity will win.
“Some people say eradicating cervical cancer is like a high flying dream. I’m here to say it’s not. Hoping to eradicate cervical cancer is not a myth. It is not high flying.
“We in Malaysia are not that poor in terms of health. Malaysia has access to proper healthcare.
“Trust us, we are working towards a better, women-friendly screening methods. Meanwhile, all we ask is for women go for screening and follow up if they have a positive result," she said.
Yes, going for a pap smear may still sound like a scary thing, but Dr Woo wants you to know that they have your best interest at heart.
“In Malaysia, what we need to do is to not lift health programmes from other countries and implement it here. Yes, you can take inspiration from the overseas programmes, take bits and pieces of it. But we have to tailor the programme for Malaysians.
"When it comes to Malaysians’ heathcare, we know best and we have to tailor it accordingly,” she explained.
Whatever it is, Dr Woo will not stop until she completely eradicates cervical cancer in the country.