Editorial | Sunday Observer


Hippocrates’ hypocrites

Political discussion and debate may dominate headlines in the media but there is one organisation that aims at achieving its objectives without being distracted or deterred - the Government Medical Officers’ Association, better known by its acronym, the GMOA.

The trade union which dominates the health services because the majority of doctors in government hospitals are among its membership, called for and conducted a one-day strike this week, demanding that their salaries be made on par with those in the judicial and legal sectors in government.

The strike crippled most hospitals although the GMOA virtuously proclaimed that a few selected hospitals such as maternity hospitals, cancer hospitals and children’s hospitals were ‘exempted’ from the strike. More ominously, at the end of the one-day work stoppage the GMOA threatened an ‘indefinite strike’ if its demands are not met.

For many years, strikes launched by the GMOA have become part and parcel of our daily lives. It has become as mundane as the news bulletin on the television, the rains during the monsoon season and the price of bread increasing, rupee by rupee. Now, when a strike is announced by the GMOA, hardly an eyebrow is raised because the exception has become the rule.

No one grudges doctors a decent living. In fact, that should be provided to prevent doctors from being lured to more lucrative countries. However, in recent years, they have been granted wages comparable with other professionals in the government sector and a handful of other concessions too. Yet, their motto seems to be ‘Please sir, I want some more’!

The argument trotted out by the general secretary of the GMOA in trying to explain the recent strike is that doctors require six years of training and that specialists require about twelve years of training. Therefore, the GMOA argues, their salaries should reflect that and should be put on par with those in the judiciary and the state legal services.

Is the GMOA oblivious to the fact that judges and legal officers in the state sector (mostly those in the Attorney General’s Department) do not engage in ‘private practice’? That is in stark contrast to the members of the GMOA who can be seen frequenting the corridors of every private hospital in the country after their regular hours of work - and some of them even during regular hours of work!

This attitude is typical of the GMOA. It is their contention if you are a doctor, you are a superior human being. It is the same stance they adopted over the SAITM (South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine) issue, where their argument was that if you do not get a good ‘Z’ score at your Advanced Level examination, you should be deprived of the right to study Medicine forever. SAITM did have its faults and they were many but the GMOA’s position was equally archaic, unprofessional and self-serving.

The GMOA says its struggles are aimed at saving the lives of the innocent and the less fortunate who turn up at the doorstep of government hospitals. Yet, they have staged strikes on issues such as demanding duty-free vehicle permits and, would you believe it, the admission of their children to preferred schools! They were also demanding concessionary rates on income tax for specialist doctors.

Due to the composition of the Sri Lanka Medical Council, the GMOA also has a stranglehold on this body that is supposed to regulate the medical profession. Therefore, its membership can engage in their shenanigans without fear of being disciplined.

All of this represents a culture where doctors, at least those in the GMOA, believe they are God’s gift to the people of this country, a special kind of human being and that the nation owes them a living and a luxurious one at that.

That the GMOA’s sentiments are not bona fide have been exposed many a time. Its campaigns of agitation were on a low key during the previous regime. Its hierarchy expressed support to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the last presidential campaign. When the regime changed, the lapdog metamorphosed into a rottweiler and bared its fangs - and now we have strikes ad nauseam.

The time has come for the GMOA to be made accountable for their actions. As a trade union it is certainly entitled to make demands and fight for them but it should not be at the expense of patients’ lives.

Just as much as it is demanding concessions, it must also be brought to heel. For instance, there could be measures to regulate doctors’ private practice instead of allowing doctors to see patients for less than five minutes, charging thousands of rupees. Surely, as a trade union fighting for social justice, the GMOA would have no objections?

Though claiming to be followers of Hippocrates, the GMOA has become a bunch of hypocrites. The time has now come to call them to account.