What exactly is the GMOA fighting for? | Sunday Observer

What exactly is the GMOA fighting for?

What is the incurable malady afflicting the Government Medical Officers’ Association?

We have to pose the question, after its latest stance over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) medical school in Malabe.

Over the past few years, as the controversy over SAITM raged, the GMOA had us believe that they were fighting the cause of the general public. They wanted to protect the country from medical schools producing doctors of poor quality through privately set up medical schools with dubious credentials. Or so they told us.

When the GMOA launched strike after strike that left in the lurch, the most vulnerable sections of society who rely on free health care, they told them that it had to be done for the greater good of the generations to come, because they wanted to preserve the standards of the medical profession. And, a sizeable section of the public believed them too.

A few weeks ago, a ‘settlement’ - or the outlines of one - was announced. The Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital in Malabe, a huge bone of contention at the time, was acquired by the government. Recruitment of students to SAITM was halted. SAITM was to operate under a board of management where all stakeholders would be represented. And, just as the GMOA was demanding, the minimum standards for medical education were to be gazetted.


A few other key announcements have been made since then.Those standards have now been gazetted and SAITM will be affiliated to the Sri Lanka Institute for Information Technology (SLIIT). Still, the GMOA is not happy. It is making noises to the effect that it will agitate further. It wants SAITM - or its successor- scrapped and private medical education brought to a halt in the country. That is the pound of flesh it now demands.

As far as one can discern, the main issues about SAITM- the quality of its students, staff and its facilities- have been addressed. It was reported that other parties who had participated at the discussions- the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), Deans of other Medical Faculties and the University Grants Commission (UGC) all agreed with the ‘settlement’. If memory serves us right, the SLMC and the Deans of other Medical Faculties were - along with the GMOA- among those agitating for reforming SAITM, only a few months ago.

Now, it appears that everyone is happy, except the GMOA. It will only be a matter of time before they start flexing their trade unions’ muscles and holding the lives of patients hostage, yet again. This begs the question, what exactly is the GMOA fighting for?

The GMOA is fighting to maintain the medical profession as some kind of elitist enclave, with privileges that only they can enjoy, we daresay. They are not fighting for free education, free health care or the standard of medical education; they are fighting for their self-preservation as a pompous profession which is able to demand and get what they want, when they want, regardless of how justifiable their demands are.

Consider the evidence: this is a trade union that went on strike demanding duty free vehicle permits; this is also a trade union which went on strike demanding that their children have the right to be admitted to the top schools in the country. Where was the welfare of the ‘innocent patients’ when they did all that?

The GMOA tries to take the moral high ground claiming that they want to prevent the medical degree being available for ‘sale’ for the right amount of money. They preach about the quality of medical care. Yet, their members engage in private practice with gay abandon, some of them seeing a dozen patients per hour. How can they guarantee good quality medical care when there is such a high turnover in the patients they see in the private sector and they spend approximately five minutes with each patient?

Now, the GMOA says, the minimum standards for medical education which were gazetted by the Minister of Health are not sufficiently high. What next, we wonder? Will it want those Sri Lankan students returning with medical degrees acquired overseas derecognized because their Advanced Level results don’t meet the minimum standards of the GMOA? One never knows, because, with the GMOA, anything is possible!

The GMOA, under its current dispensation wanted the Minister of Health changed. It wanted its nominee as the President of the Sri Lanka Medical Council and objected to the Health Minister’s choice, threatening trade union action if he was appointed. Now, it appears that it wants private medical education, in any way, shape or form, regardless of the safeguards that can be built in to such a system, abolished.

It is time to call the GMOA’s bluff. Let’s not pretend any more that it is working for the greater good of ‘innocent patients’. After all, if they were, where were they when SAITM was conceptualized, built, and commenced teaching activities- all of which happened during the Rajapaksa era,when they dared not utter a whimper of protest?

Two choices

The government has two choices: it can yield to each and every demand of the GMOA. In that scenario, it might as well hand over the Executive Presidency to the President of the GMOA. He can then appoint his own Minister of Health, nominate the President of the Sri Lanka Medical Council, grant duty free permits to his membership and allocate prestigious schools for their children!

Or else, the GMOA - and its doctors - can be treated as any other profession. They do a job and they are paid a wage for it - and they should not be demanding any special privileges more than, for example, an engineer, accountant or an architect. Yes, there was a time when doctors were considered‘special’. That was when the profession was not just another job but a noble calling and those who engaged in it acted in a manner befitting the dignity of their vocation. Not anymore. There may be a handful of doctors who still subscribe to that ethos, but you wouldn’t find them among the rabble-rousers in the GMOA.

After all, one can only command respect, one cannot demand it. And whatever else they may demand, the GMOA cannot demand respect. And right now, they don’t command any respect either.