SAITM: opportunities, challenges | Sunday Observer

SAITM: opportunities, challenges

The Government’s proposal on resolving the SAITM problem, coming as it does after painstaking and painful negotiation and consultation, is an opportunity accompanied by some challenges.

The Government’s decisive plan of action on the SAITM problem announced to Parliament last week has, whatever its possible weaknesses, provided the nation with a solution that ensures those sectors most concerned, of some equitable redress while providing a framework to address the problem comprehensively.

The crux of the whole problem, namely, the training of medical professionals to nationally and globally accepted standards, will be addressed by a process in which the Sri Lanka Medical Council, with guidance by the Attorney General, will formulate minimum standards for medical education. The Government is committed to formally adopting this set of standards.

The interests of the current batch of students are addressed by an interim framework and procedure to be supervised by the two apex authorised agencies, namely the Sri Lanka Medical Council and the University Grant Commission.

SAITM, as an aspiring degree-awarding institution, is challenged to meet all required standards for medical training. This is an opportunity to set the standard for a whole new industry of higher medical education.

The Government and the medical authorities are equally challenged to evolve medical education standards in a manner that complements its encouragement of the private sector to invest in, and venture into, a range of economic sectors including medical education. Given the expansion of the country’s hospital and medical services systems, primarily by the private sector, the need for medical professionals within the country alone, is bound to grow. The international demand for doctors and ancillary medical professionals continues to grow.

Thus, the action on SAITM has to be implemented in a transparent manner that is sensitive to the interests and needs of the private sector, especially potential investors in medical training from both here and abroad. It is to be hoped that the State take-over of the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital will also be done in a manner that satisfies the larger business community that risks of venturing into high-demand sectors that are socially sensitive will be managed and minimised. The Government’s proposal gives the government and the sector regulators the responsibility of ensuring that, on nationalisation, the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital will fulfil standards for medical training.

The Government proposals offer opportunities to the medical profession as well as to education experts who are concerned about the future of medical education in Sri Lanka. The debate and furore over the SAITM standards and student interests has sparked such national interest that many concerned groups have come forward with ideas and proposals.

The medical experts, administrators and education experts have already been engaged with numerous consultative processes and negotiations with and between interested parties. The government has navigated this process that stretched over months and was punctuated with public protest, drama and, near-violence, some of it mobilised with political motives.

The courts have made rulings which have helped prod the process along.

Now there is a set of opportunities for medical professionals and experts, professional bodies and trade unions, student unions and teaching professionals, to contribute their expertise and ideas towards the various processes and activities to be undertaken in the implementation of the Government[‘s proposals. The uproar over SAITM has masked the emergence of a new sector of private enterprise: medical services and medical training.

As noted above, the hospital and medical services industry is now a significant economic sector. This is primarily due to the raising of service standards across a broad spectrum of the industry with private sector initiative, if not leadership. Certainly the Medical Council contributes by ensuring that training standards are maintained at a globally competitive level.

The expansion of our hospital industry has been done with some international collaboration, especially with Indian corporate participation and investment. India is world famous for its medical expertise from nurse level upwards. Other Asian countries have shown interest, such as Thailand and Singapore.

Sri Lankan hospitals and medical services are beginning to have an expanding international custom. This began with servicing Maldivian customers but, in the recent decade, has attracted custom from the Sub-continent as well. The potential is vast with benefits for Sri Lankans both in terms of better medical care as well as in terms of rising economic growth helped by such expanded industries and ancillary services.

A number of big private hospitals here along with ancillary services now service foreign customers. The metro region hotel industry, as well the home rental market, today, has a rising custom from these same foreign customers of the hospital industry.

The government faces a major challenge in regularising standard-setting in not just medical education but in the education system as a whole. A crucial, but long neglected aspect, is the standard-setting and regulation of private sector enterprises in two sectors: the school and higher education sector and the private hospitals and related services sector.

As the private sector is the main engine of the economy and source of investment, the government, then must remain engaged with the business community, especially with directly interested investors, through the entire process related to medical education.

It is to be hoped that the Government proposals are dealt with in a deliberative manner by all sides. The opportunities offered by interested expert groups to make contributions must be seized. 

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