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This Friday, the trade union of the majority of doctors in government hospitals, the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) staged an island-wide strike protesting against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) being granted recognition.

The propaganda war is in full force. The GMOA claims the strike was a huge success. It accuses the government of dragging its feet over the SAITM issue and colluding with that institution to enable it to gain recognition, without subscribing to the minimum standards set out by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC).

The government maintains that the SAITM dispute is now before courts and that intervening at this stage to yield to the GMOA’s demands is tantamount to contempt of court. It says it is working with the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the state medical faculties to arrive at an acceptable solution.

We will not be discussing the advantages and disadvantages of SAITM, or for that matter, private medical education in these columns because that debate is being played out ad nauseam in the media. We also hold no brief for SAITM: from the information available in the public domain, that institution appears to have more than its fair share of deficits which need to be rectified.
Meanwhile, however, what is escaping the limelight though is the humongous hypocrisy of the GMOA.

The GMOA takes a holier than thou attitude towards medical education. It argues that doctors’ training should be stringently regulated because they deal with lives of patients. That is how it is the world over and that is how it should be- no one will dispute that.

Where the GMOA exposes its hypocrisy is when it launches a crusade at what claims are the poor standards at SAITM but maintains a deafening silence on the standards at state medical faculties.

Ask anyone in the university circuit and they will tell you that the medical faculties of the Rajarata, Eastern and Jaffna universities are extremely understaffed. Lecturers are ‘imported’ from elsewhere, housed in these faculties for a short period of time where they conduct an ‘accelerated’ course on a subject for the deprived students. That is how they operate.

Is this ideal? Of course not. Could this lead to a lower standard of medical education? Quite possibly, yes. Why then is the GMOA silent on this issue? Why does it not utter a whimper of protest, let along staging crippling strikes, if it is genuinely concerned that patients’ lives could be at risk if doctors of poor quality are produced?

The matter of why the GMOA is waking up to the SAITM issue now, when it has been in existence for over a half a dozen years is also interesting. The GMOA says it protested then but those protests were but a whinge in comparison to today’s rowdy din. Does that have something to do with the fact that GMOA’s present President openly canvassed for the country’s former President at the last Presidential election?

Now, if the GMOA is worried about the standard of medical education in the country, surely they must be even more concerned about the standard of medical care provided by doctors. If so, shall we take a look at how medical care is provided by doctors?

Walk into any private hospital or medical centre and look at the infamous ‘channelling’ that goes on there. Is there any regulation at all of how many patients are seen by a single doctor, how much of time is spent on each consultation and last but not the least, what fees are charged?

There are ‘popular’ specialists who see 50-60 patients every day, charge several thousand rupees per patient and spend 4-5 minutes per patient. Is this good medical practice? Are these doctors suggesting that, such is their infinite wisdom and brilliance that they are able to see a patient literally for just a few minutes and come to a correct diagnosis?

If so, we must be having the best doctors on the planet! And, they must be defying everything that they learnt at medical school where the importance of taking a detailed history from the patient and making a thorough examination is taught from day one!
Now, if the GMOA was up in arms about this, if they struck work over this and if they participated in mass protests regarding this, just as they did over the SAITM controversy, we would be the first to applaud them.

However, when they cry foul at SAITM but refuse to acknowledge that something is wrong with some state medical faculties or the private practice that they themselves so eagerly indulge in, we have to question the bona fides of this esteemed trade union.
So, that begs the question: is the GMOA worthy protectors of patients, fighting valiantly for free education and for the rights of patients to be treated by competent doctors? Or, are they just like everyone else, rabble-rousers with an agenda of their own?
They are certainly good at propaganda but that does not necessarily make their cause justifiable. And, in any event, whatever deficits SAITM may have- and they have plenty- how can the GMOA justify placing the lives of innocent patients at risk to achieve their objectives?

Of course, this is not the first time when the GMOA has stuck to its guns. They have struck work demanding duty-free permits for doctors when it was not available to other public servants. Even more ludicrously, they struck work and staged a sit-in protest at the Ministry of Education demanding top schools for their children.

Clearly, the GMOA believes that doctors are a special breed of people – an elite group that deserves preferential treatment over others. In a sense they are, because they have a weapon which they can use as a deadly ransom: the threat of strike action that could literally be a matter of life and death for an innocent patient.
And, if recent events are anything to go by, they do not hesitate to use this weapon when they feel that their species is being threatened in any way.