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Public anger


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Professionals should be respected because they provide a service to the public. But when professionals leave aside public interest and focus more on personal interest, the results can be worrying for everyone. 

The assault on the property and staff of the Galaha hospital on Tuesday after the death of an infant allegedly from medical negligence, shows what happens when people lose respect for professionals. The family of the infant allege that doctors failed to provide treatment resulting in the death. 

Angry villagers surrounded the hospital, attacked the vehicles of the two doctors and damaged hospital property. Police had to fire tear gas at the crowd to bring the situation under control and, according to reports, had to post Special Task Force (STF) personnel at the hospital to keep the peace. The staff had to be escorted out under Police protection. 

Gone are the times when doctors or other medical professionals were treated with respect bordering on the sacred. Doctors once held the highest status in society because they saved lives. Their views were respected and followed. But there has clearly been a slow but steady reduction of respect over the past decade, which has undoubtedly been accelerated by the activities of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA). 

A strike is a powerful tool and knowing this well the GMOA has resorted to it time and again. Initially it was to win salary increases but the list of perks has slowly expanded with recent demands even including lower tax payments. Of late it has gone a step further and coupled professional demands with larger economic policies such as Free Trade Agreements. The GMOA has waged a sustained campaign against the already-signed Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA and has remained steadfastly opposed to the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) under discussion with India. 

Their main argument regarding these trade deals is that it would allow foreign professionals to work in Sri Lanka, essentially ending the monopoly of power enjoyed by the GMOA. The fact that allowing more professionals who could potentially transfer better knowledge and expertise to Sri Lanka and give people better access to essential services has been rejected by them. 

Attempts by economists to give examples of human resource and economic development around the world created by liberal migration, investment and stronger competition has received a deaf ear and the GMOA, together with other professional bodies, continue to believe they, and they alone, know best. 

The many strikes that have resulted in this standoff have also generated unprecedented anger towards the GMOA and its members because it victimises innocent patients. Galaha is only one instance when this anger was unleashed. Yet it is clear that the masses feel that professionals, most of who are products of the free education system of Sri Lanka, have a responsibility to serve their people and not always sacrifice them on the altar of professional self-interest.  

Patient rights are also undermined by medical professional organisations that have essentially stymied any action that might be taken by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) to promote accountability for medical negligence. This level of impunity enjoyed by medical professionals comes at the cost of justice for patients. The Galaha incident should not be allowed to be repeated but such a step also requires professionals to remember who they serve.


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