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The saga over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) continues. It has already seen the good and the bad. Now it is seeing the ugly.

This week police alleged that the reported shooting of the Chief Executive Officer of SAITM was apparently stage managed. A Pradeshiya Sabha member, police claim, was involved in the incident. SAITM has already announced that the CEO has been stood down, pending further inquiries.

While the CEO is entitled to his presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the findings of the Police investigation does not augur well for him and more importantly for SAITM.
This incident, if indeed was stage managed as the police now say, gives credence to the claims of the many opponents of SAITM who accuse the institution of bulldozing their way through alleged fraud and deception.

The danger is that it could have an impact in ultimately deciding the fate of the hundreds of SAITM students who entered that institution with the hope of becoming a doctor.

It must be remembered that these are two separate issues. If the CEO of SAITM acted in a fraudulent manner to stage a mock shooting, so he could generate public sympathy, he must be dealt with according to the law for what appears to be an attempt to pervert the course of justice.

This should not be confused with the other issue of granting recognition for SAITM’s students. That must be assessed on its merit. While stringent standards should be maintained at all cost, there are two questions that need clear and definitive answers.
Firstly, does the government, and indeed the country, as a policy endorse private medical education? This query needs to be posed because some of those who have joined the vocal bandwagon against SAITM are those opposed to private medical education, no matter what standards are maintained.

Opposing private medical education does not sound like a sensible option in this day and age, especially when the country is losing vital foreign exchange as hundreds of locals seek medical education overseas. Besides, privately funded higher education is available in every other discipline, so why should medical education be the exception? Nevertheless, this is a decision the government must take as a matter of policy.

Secondly, if the government does support private medical education, where does SAITM fit into the equation? What are its deficiencies? How best can they be rectified? What loopholes in the law need to be closed, so that institutions- and hundreds of aspiring medical graduates- do not find themselves in the plight that SAITM and its students are faced with today?

These are greater, broader decisions that will impact on the higher education of generations to come. Therefore, they need to be taken carefully and those making these vital choices should not be jaundiced against SAITM, just because its CEO allegedly staged a publicity stunt.

There is also another side of the coin to being ugly about the SAITM issue: its sworn foes, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) are also resorting to ugly tactics by staging staggered strikes across the country, one province at a time.

From a strategic point of view, this maybe an astute ploy, if the idea is to educate the masses about SAITM and its purported shortcomings, as the GMOA perceives them. Whenever the health services of a province grinds to a halt and the people ask why, they will learn of SAITM. However, is it moral or ethical on the part of the GMOA to indulge in this type of action?

Ask the GMOA why they say that medical education is over and above everything else and they will tell you that doctors deal with patients’ lives and that this is therefore a profession where no chances can be taken. So, they argue, it is too serious a matter to be left to the private sector alone. They are, of course, correct.

However, how come they do not apply the same stringent standard when they stage strikes? Have they ever witnessed the aftermath of what happens when their doctors go on strike, whether it is over the SAITM issue, or worse still, over duty free vehicle permits or schools for their children?

Hapless patients then turn to the next best alternative- the private sector! On the days that the GMOA is on strike, private hospitals are bursting at the seams with big business as doctors in the private sector move in to fill the void- and in the course of doing so, save a few lives.

Of course, as much as the GMOA is against private medical education and wants it regulated stringently, it hasn’t, if memory serves us right, uttered a word against private practice by its membership.

This is not to say that private practice is evil. In fact, if private practice was banned, all those patients who now utilise the private sector would spill over to the state health system which would then collapse under that unsustainable burden.

However, it is also well known that private practice (or, to use the popular word, ‘channelling’) is also a much abused system. Specialists literally see hundreds of patients within a few hours, spending only a few minutes per patient. Is the GMOA, which argues for strict standards in medical education, telling us that this is good practice and that this does not place patients’ lives at risk? Ah, as far double standards go, this must surely take the cake!

Moreover, GMOA is not a regulator of the medical profession, it is another trade union.
So, as far as the average citizen such as yours truly is concerned, yes, if the CEO of SAITM did what he is alleged to have done, then that is ugly and he should suffer the consequences for that, especially for misleading an entire country.

But, by the same token, the game the GMOA is playing it is equally ugly, toying with patients’ lives whenever they feel like it. As the GMOA is demanding, by all means medical education should be very strictly monitored but so should the practice of doctors after they graduate and specialise especially in the private sector.

After all, patients’ lives are too serious a matter to be left in the hands of doctors alone.