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The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) was once a respectable and esteemed organisation whose reasonable demands met with the backing and sympathy of both the general public as well as the free media. Its members had historically been the pillars of every community.

The public then placed the highest degree of trust for their lives and well-being in the hands of such committed practitioners. To many they were miracle workers, to whom each patient was not merely a customer, but a life and death responsibility. Doctors in the old days acted as therapists, marriage counsellors – even making house calls and introducing alternative medicine into their treatment plans.

One wonders whatever happened to the personable old family doctors of the past, those extraordinarily gifted physicians who attended to your medical needs with a captivating bedside manner? Today that image of the once adulated  medical union has been stripped to a bare level of obscene nudity that would make a seasoned strip tease artiste blush with shame.

The most recent strike demanding the closure or nationalization of the South Asia Institute of Technology and Management SAITM, appears to smack of nothing but crass envy and fear of the medical fraternity becoming an overcrowded profession. Surely its unrelenting striking stakeholders come up with the most ludicrous arguments over such a demand that obviously smacks of more than a mere tinge of envy and fear that they would be upstaged by private university scholars.

The present strikes, unlike in the old days, are not about better working conditions, better salaries, or to seek respite from longer working hours. And did these medical professionals ever give a thought to the suffering sick racked in pain and who don’t give a tinker’s cuss for any such resentful personal agendas?

Many of them have been replaced with the new clinical specialist who knows more about organic chemistry than human interaction. They approach their patients with the cold objectivity of a scientist watching an experiment. What is worse is that they are being stuck with the disreputable appellation of turning into a ‘Medical Mafia’. And it is far from being a misnomer in relation to attempting to control everything in similarity to the Sicilian mobsters, who live by their own complicated bully-boy rules and tangled web of egocentric fraternity loyalty.

The state medical trade union it seems is hell bent on resorting to unwarranted industrial action while cocking a snoot at the judiciary and the administration to inflexibly demand the closure of a private grove of academe as a form of medical protectionism.
From a global perspective, the medical profession is indeed one of the various occupations that carry dignity and every doctor should have this concept rooted deep in his or her mind. Unlike in most other nations where medical education is prohibitively costly Sri Lankan doctors have never had it so good.

Times have changed and by anyone’s standards local doctors who receive the benefit of a free education are now well rewarded financially for the vital, life-saving work that they do. That is a fair assessment but why should they be given the latitude to cross the line seeking such capricious demands? Besides they do have privileges which other state employees are not entitled to such as the right to private practice during their off hours. As such any cause of strike action should be contemplated only when all options are exhausted. Unjustified strikes by health sector workers are tantamount to blackmailing the helpless sick as well as the government.

In most cases, doctors’ strikes have been condemned because the public perceive that they are risking the lives of millions and however not ethical. Can ethics be applied to doctors’ strike? A doctor’s priorities are always to look after their patients. Yet any proposed strike action will put patients’ lives at risk and damage the esteemed reputation of the medical profession to a point where their credibility can never be re-established. Moreover, it comes at a time when the nation is facing epidemics of dengue and other life-threatening symptoms.

Regardless of the issues involved, one cannot conclude that striking as a doctor can ever be justified. However carefully the argument is put by the GMOA this strike will at best inconvenience patients requiring non-urgent medical attention and at worst seriously damage patient care. Genuine grievances of medical personnel need to be listened to and addressed. However, in this particular issue threatening to strike is both politically naive and, more importantly, morally wrong.

To claim that a walk-out on even non-emergency work will not affect patient care seems illogical. How could it not? Appointments, elective procedures, and admissions will inevitably be postponed. Can any striking doctor really claim that such action will have no clinical or emotional consequence for patients and their families? Of course not. To withdraw emergency cover is an even more morally indefensible position. If state  doctors strike in this manner, some patients will die—and at least some of these deaths could be avoided. This outcome is inevitable because doctors have a vital role in the assessment and management of sick patients in an already sick health system.

It is now time for the authorities to crack the whip on these errant doctors who spend more time in private hospitals and clinics than in government hospitals. No one can deny that our medical system across the county has, over the years, turned into a commercial enterprise and those who cannot pay will soon be left to die uncared for. But even those who can pay are being short-changed by so-called super specialists who hold the sick to ransom with regular frequency.

It is time that the GMOA woke up to reality and realised that its actions will damage the high esteem in which medical professionals are held, while harming the very people it is meant to help – patients. It is for these reasons that many of the more ethical medical professionals should decide to resign from the GMOA.

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