Medical professionals, heal thyself | Sunday Observer

Medical professionals, heal thyself

Does Sri Lanka’s medical profession need to heal itself? Glaring lapses have come to light in recent times in what was once a noble and much respected profession, leading to many questions about its integrity.

The cancer eroding the profession now appears to have engulfed not only the militant trade union of doctors, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) but also the statutory body that is expected to regulate the profession, the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC).

Just this week, the Supreme Court had to intervene to order the SLMC to grant provisional registration to graduates of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). The crisis involving SAITM had dragged on for years, blighting the best years of hundreds of would be doctors.

Despite a resolution being reached between the Government and the authorities at SAITM much to the satisfaction of the GMOA, it appears that the SLMC was dragging its feet in registering eligible SAITM graduates.

The Supreme Court ordered the SLMC to register the students within a period of three weeks and observed that it does not have the legal right to deny registration to SAITM graduates, and by doing so was violating their fundamental rights.

The Supreme Court noted that both, the Court of Appeal as well as the Supreme Court had earlier ordered the SLMC to register SAITM graduates and that the SLMC could not continue to deny doing so under the legislation governing the Council. Strong and scathing words indeed- and if the SLMC was a body with some degree of self-respect, its members should have resigned forthwith.

Ironically, this was also not the first instance it was reprimanded by the highest court in the land. Just a week before, it had been chastised in similar circumstances by the same court for refusing to register foreign medical graduates who had passed the local qualifying examination.

That was after sixteen medical graduates who completed their medical degrees at foreign universities filed fundamental rights petitions alleging that the SLMC had refused to provisionally register them as medical practitioners in Sri Lanka. The petitioners complained they had been subjected to unfair treatment.

So, it appears as though one needs to seek redress from the Supreme Court and lodge a fundamental rights application to get one’s medical degree registered with and recognised by the SLMC, if the degree is from anywhere but one of the recognised state medical faculties in Sri Lanka.

Such are the depths to which the SLMC has descended to. It is indeed a blot on the profession in which many members still continue to render yeoman service for little reward, saving lives and healing wounds. Unfortunately, even such members are tarred with the same brush when the profession’s apex bodies behave in this arrogant and impudent manner.

The plight of the medical profession was also highlighted in the recent incident involving a doctor at the Kurunegala hospital who was alleged to have conducted forced sterilisations on thousands of women, allegedly without their knowledge.

As we have noted in these columns before, the matter is still under investigation so comment about the doctor’s guilt or innocence must be reserved, but again, it is the conduct of the medical profession that left much to be desired.

It was clear from the outset that the allegations made against the doctor had a communal context to it. They were highlighted in sections of the media which take great pride and joy in their self-appointed role as saviours of the majority community. Then, social media took over and the allegations became all but fact in the eyes of the general public because of the hyperbole surrounding it.

The irony is that, for the allegations to be true, the accused doctor would have had to hoodwink dozens of senior and junior staff who worked with him to forcibly sterilise women by manipulating their fallopian tubes. Even a junior doctor would know this is virtually impossible, unless of course, the rest of the staff were also colluding with him- which is an even more preposterous allegation.

That being the case, one would have expected bodies such as the SLMC, the GMOA and even more respected and unbiased institutions such as the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) to take the lead in educating the public about the issue. However, their collective silence has been deafening.

A few doctors took to the media to explain what the allegations meant and how implausible they were. However, they were few and far between and their voices were drowned in the cacophony of jingoistic nationalism that seem to have suddenly enveloped even the medical profession. If that was how the medical profession was reacting towards one of their own, how could one expect them to protect the general public?

The politicisation of the medical profession is not a recent phenomenon. It appears to have begun with the militancy of the GMOA which was hijacked by a group of persons with vested political interests. That has continued for many years now and this medical mafia continues to control the trade union- in a manner not dissimilar to how a similar mafia with comparable political leanings controls Sri Lanka Cricket. Just as much as the latter has led to the detriment of cricket in the country, so has the former contributed to the decline of the medical profession.

As a result, the medical profession has been on a downward spiral for some time now. Its trajectory has not been arrested. Recent events recounted above only suggest that the standards continue to decline, and very soon, the profession will become the subject of hatred and ridicule. Laws, regulations and guidelines alone cannot remedy this.

There must be an attitudinal change and de-politicisation of the medical profession. That must come from within the profession itself. If Sri Lanka’s doctors wish to preserve the little respect they still have, they would have to change- and that change needs to be both substantial and prompt. Or else, the day will not be far off when they are referred to in the same vein as politicians.