Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva: Plenary lecture delivered at the Colombo Medical Congress. 24th Nov 2022, where his chosen title was “The Doctor in the Society: A Sri Lankan Perspective”
I thank the organizers for inviting me to talk on a very relevant topic at a time when the role of the educated in society is becoming the focus of the people as well as the members of our own profession. I am known to be somewhat blunt calling a spade a spade in expressing my opinion as I strongly believe that diplomacy often fails to achieve desired results. As such I can only hope that, at the end of my presentation, the organisers of the Colombo Medical Congress 22 will not regret ever asking me to speak.
Wherever I appear to find fault with the activities of the medical profession, it is purely to ensure that we do our best to reorient ourselves to maintain the respect the society still has for the noble profession.
I strongly believe it is unlikely you will hear genuine sentiments I express here in any other forum. As such please give your ears to what I say carefully, as you will not be distracted by visual impulses from the video screen.
At the very outset I need not stress the fact that we in Sri Lanka are going through perhaps the most difficult period in our lifetime, a crisis of unimaginable proportions. More relevant to the topic, the role of every member of the society, specially the professionals, is being questioned and re-examined, either to apportion blame or to find ways out of the dire situation.
We belong to a very old, much respected profession, one of the three professions recognized from medieval and early modern times, the other two being divinity and law. It should be noted that these three professions remain the ones closest to the people. The activities, or rather inactivity, of these professionals have a direct impact on society.
A doctor has been treated as a demigod. It has been said if one can’t be the king, he should try to become a doctor. “Rajek wenna barinan, vedek wenna”. Such was the respect with which the doctor has been held in society throughout history.
However, while the doctor may be venerated by the individual relieved of an ailment and by the family, it is unfortunate that the society at large often sees the doctor as yet another member serving and benefitting from a corrupt system. The doctors’ shortcomings and mistakes are highlighted while their achievements in maintaining services without adequate resources are downplayed mostly.
There is hardly a secret in day to day life a patient will not divulge to the doctor, if we are prepared to spend time listening. That is important as many of the complaints a patient presents with have a social background contributing in a big way. For that interaction to be fruitful, the doctor has to maintain the best demeanor in all aspects to instill confidence in the patient. Unfortunately the general impression among the public is that the doctors do not seem to have enough time to listen to patients during a hasty consultation.
I have come across many in the older generation who keep praising with nostalgia the exemplary qualities of doctors of yesteryear. I point out to them that those doctors belonged to a different generation and a different mold, where citizens were nurtured from early days in a value centered society, and as such worked in a more respectable way as public servants. Thus it is not reasonable to expect present day doctors nurtured and working in a corrupt environment to behave very differently from the rest of the society. However, due to the very nature of our work in close contact with the people to relieve their suffering, they quite rightly expect us to strive to be above board all the time.
Society is ever ready to treat doctors with respect. That is why wherever we go, we are treated with a difference. We are always encouraged by others to break queues; we are often let off lightly by the police after committing traffic offenses and the like. The doctor’s badge on our cars makes a big difference where it matters. No wonder, this badge is abused by those not entitled to use that, as well as by doctors themselves. It is ridiculous to see doctors appearing in public places in their blue scrubs meant to be worn only in clinical settings. Demanding respect is not the way to go about.
Fallout of the Pandemic
The COVID pandemic has made the medical profession admirably manage the unprecedented crisis many have not faced before in our lifetime. This has changed the very outlook of medical practice world over. How the medical services in the resource poor country of ours rose to the occasion and managed as well as or even better than the richer countries is being admired even by the WHO. Free on call services provided by volunteer doctors in the SLMA-Mobitel 247 Doc on Call service was a new experience, much appreciated by the people.
We have now learned to live with COVID. However it is unfortunate that continued hiding behind masks has further distanced the caregiver doctor from the patient. Reported reluctance of many doctors to get close to the patient for fear of catching infection, despite being vaccinated and using other protective measures, and writing prescriptions without ever touching the patient, is beyond comprehension and cannot be justified.
The pandemic has exposed many undesirable facets in the administration of healthcare services in the country. As was happening over the years the doctors in various specialities served in committees to advise the administrators in planning the response. And, as often happens, it was disheartening to see how such advice was ignored by the decision makers leading to chaos in many instances. This crisis has exposed corruption and fraud plaguing the health service, as much as the rest of the affairs of the country, over many years. It is unimaginable and shameful how unscrupulous politicians, administrators, private healthcare providers, businessmen and even some doctors themselves, allegedly exploited human misery to line their own pockets. As a consequence we are now faced with almost insurmountable problems in maintaining even basic healthcare services in a bankrupt country. I need not elaborate on the shortage of drugs and other resources nearly paralyzing the services.
A country hitherto boasting of an exemplary free health service admired world over, is now on the verge of seeing avoidable deaths and disease due to many deficiencies in the healthcare services.
Role of the Medical Profession in Preventing Irregularities
Could the medical profession have done more in the past to avoid the current difficulties in the making for many years? We knew all along that there was alleged corruption in procuring drugs and equipment. There was gross political interference in the functions of the drug regulatory authority. It was well known that there was mismanagement in the distribution of manpower. The hospitals in bigger cities were overstaffed while the health services in the periphery suffered from shortage of doctors, other personnel and material.. The doctors demanded and received increased salaries with overtime payments, which we know were often on fraudulent claims. But trade unions of doctors indulged purely in looking after the interests of their members, just like any other union in non professional occupations, turning a blind eye to many of their own shortcomings and fraudulent activities, at the expense of deterioration of services. This is despite the fact that a professional, by definition, unlike others just doing a paid job, is expected to work towards the improvement of the standards of the profession as well.
At present there is callous disregard for the fundamental rights of people to express their opinion peacefully. Such suppression of dissent has health implications as well. Alleged overuse of outdated tear gas, physical assault of unarmed protesters, manhandling of men and women, uncivilised treatment of prisoners are all instances where there should be an outcry from the medical profession, at least as far as the health implications are concerned. Apart from a recently formed grouping of a few medical professionals for system change, there is hardly a whisper, apart from issuing lengthy statements with no follow up action, from older well established organizations of doctors. Recently, when a doctor was interdicted for speaking aloud on impending childhood malnutrition, not even the Colleges of Paediatricians or Community Medicine have come to his defense.
Role of the Professional Colleges
To what extent have the various medical associations and professional colleges acted to keep these irregularities in check? The specialist Colleges could have insisted on their members not to endorse extra duty claims of juniors without checking. So far they are guided by the decades old constitutions that confine them to purely academic activity. I was surprised and dismayed just a few weeks ago when the oldest college of medical specialists in the country unanimously decided to remain strictly within the objectives of their constitution drafted over 50 years ago, when the issues affecting the community and the doctors were very different, confining themselves purely to academic activity. They decided it was too risky for their reputation to get involved in the current political turmoil in the country, and to avoid it like plague.
The medical associations and Colleges should note that if they just watched passively in silence as the social fabric collapsed around them, they may not be left with any room to manoeuver or enough members to work with, as the younger doctors leave the country in droves looking for greener pastures to live and work in peace. It is pertinent to note here that almost all post graduate trainees who passed the MD medicine examination recently prefer to specialize in general internal medicine rather than in hitherto popular fields like cardiology or endocrinology, as it is much easier to find jobs abroad that way. I understand that services in anaesthesia and psychiatry will have the greatest negative impact due to the brain drain. The Colleges by confining themselves to academic activity, may be just training doctors at tax payers’ expense for service abroad!
However, let me note with appreciation and congratulate the multitude of Colleges and Associations for their resilience in continuing the academic programmes at a very challenging time. They have garnered support from a wide variety of well wishers and obtained donations of drugs and other material for hospitals that are in short supply during the crisis.
It is high time that the colleges amended their constitutions, to include as an objective, an advocacy role in non academic matters dealing with social welfare and governance which could have a serious impact on healthcare services in the long term. They could appoint subcommittees to constantly monitor such aspects in the community and formulate appropriate action. The SLMA has done just that now. The intercollegiate committee initiated by the SLMA for the purpose of COVID control could be a basis for coordinating this non academic activity.
If we were proactive in the past, we could have prevented to some extent the calamity befalling the society at present. We knew that the most powerful trade union of doctors, much respected in the years gone by, was getting too involved in mundane politics. They indulged in giving expert advise on non medical affairs as well, bringing disaster, among other areas, to the agriculture sector in the country and hunger and poverty to the farming community and the public at large. As a result, the medical profession is now being looked upon by the people as one of the main architects of the current dismal situation.
The senior doctors in various associations and colleges, knowing the obvious repercussions, did not seek a discussion or some other form of intervention with the medical trade union leaders to advise them to review their course of action. We had no say, or rather were reluctant to have anything to do with, in the affairs of these powerful trade unions of mainly non specialist medical officers whose services and cooperation were essential for specialists to function.
Similarly we should have known all along that irregularities in areas like drug procurement will create many future shortages affecting our services. We could have taken a strong stand to prevent or minimize them by at least exposing the same to the public. Non-medical unions in the health service shouted hoarse about the irregularities but were conveniently ignored by those in authority. Doctors, with perhaps greater influence on decision makers, could have had a greater impact if they resorted to similar forceful action. But we considered ourselves to be too respectable to get involved in such so-called dirty affairs.
It is considered more beneficial to keep company with powerful politicians many of us associate with and avoid discussing political matters with them. It is an open secret that many senior doctors were close associates of errant politicians in power. Our word would have carried more weight if we cared to address the various issues leading the country to the present dismal state. We could have easily arranged discussions with political and administrative authorities to convey our displeasure at the way things were being done. We waited until it was quite late and much damage was done to educate the public about the fallacy of the Dhammika Peniya in curing COVID. It was the same in controversial issues like the forced cremation of Muslim bodies dying of COVID and alleged large scale sterilization procedures by a doctor. No specialist or the College in the relevant field came out openly without delay to educate the public on the issues. We watched passively as so much of false rhetoric by politicians, the clergy and even medical men, kept the issue inflamed.
I wrote several newspaper articles on these issues. I was warned by my colleagues not to court trouble and to write under a pseudonym, which advice I ignored without any hesitation. I was somewhat ridiculed by union members when I wrote an open letter at an early stage to the medical trade union leader already referred to, asking him to review his problematic behaviour and change course. Such activity by influential organizations of doctors would have achieved positive results where I as a mere individual acting alone may have failed.
We are silent observers when so much harmful unproven medications are promoted over electronic media about non communicable diseases like diabetes. I admit that while having immense faith in the rational scientific basis of allopathic medicine, we have to be quite smart and diplomatic in practising our art and keeping afloat in a sea of native medicine.
It appears that our profession that can greatly influence the affairs in the country, is paralysed by an overwhelming desire to avoid unnecessary trouble and by the fear of victimization by politicians thus allowing the latter to do as they like and ruin the country. Preventive interference cannot be misinterpreted or summarily discarded as unnecessary involvement in politics. After all politics involves governance of the people and that certainly overlaps our field of work in a big way.
While complaining about the poor educational standards of our parliamentarians, a situation beyond our control, how can the professionals keep quiet allowing them a free hand in matters of cardinal importance?
There is no doubt private practice by doctors has become a necessary evil. It has reduced a tremendous burden on the free health service. But we have to bear in mind that many patients prefer private services not because they can afford it, but because of the delays, lack of basic comforts in the wards and attitudinal problems seen among government health workers. This in turn is due mostly to overcrowding and shortages of materials, and cannot be blamed entirely on the personnel involved.
However it is sad to note that very similar undesirable conditions have now pervaded the private sector as well.
The lack of a properly regulated general practice with a system of referral to specialists has made a mess in the private sector. As a result everyone with a headache goes to a neurosurgeon and every young man with a chest pain of obviously musculoskeletal origin goes to a cardiologist. But then, it is the responsibility of the consulted specialist to see that unnecessary investigations like CT scans or other expensive tests are avoided and that they are referred to the appropriate consultant or a GP for follow up. I know of a patient with bronchial asthma in an outstation town who traveled a long distance to be followed up for nearly two years by a cardiac surgeon as the ignorant patient went to him for “papuwe amaruwa”. This has to be sheer irresponsibility, and not greed for money, as the specialists concerned are already overloaded with work in their own field, and are financially well rewarded.
Many doctors including specialists do not follow the basic guidelines in writing a simple prescription. I am not going to deal at length with the well known allegation against doctors in government service working in the private sector during hospital working hours, not spending enough time for a consultation or the exorbitant charges for their services. Society looks upon the doctors in poor light as a result.
I doubt whether any Association or College of doctors ever engaged their members in a discussion on these aspects. As far as I am aware, none of their academic conferences have symposia on the public perception of the way we practice our profession. It is up to the doctors themselves to address these issues and rectify the shortcomings without waiting for the authorities to regulate through legislation.
The doctors have a social responsibility to see that the private sector does not exploit the hapless patients. As I keep saying repeatedly, this is the only business or service where the “salesman”, namely the doctor, decides what the “customer”, that is the patient, should buy. Hence there is a tremendous moral obligation on the doctor to see that the patients’ misery is not exploited for personal gain. This has to be kept in mind every time we order an investigation or prescribe a drug. Practicing medicine in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis in a bankrupt country is an art the doctors have to master pretty fast. It is high time that the SLMA and other Colleges and Associations turned their attention on this aspect as a matter of urgency.
At present many justifiably believe that the doctors work hand in glove with the private sector service providers and the pharmaceutical industry for personal gain at the expense of the patient. It should prick our conscience if these third parties are exploiting our patients who primarily come to us for relief. We as a group can have much influence in getting the private healthcare service providers to be more reasonable and people friendly in pricing their services. We seem to be worried that we might be penalized by them not providing us with enough work.
Funding by the Pharmaceutical Industry
How our various academic activities, like the annual Conferences, are lavishly funded entirely by the pharmaceutical industry is well known. Presidents and councils of various Colleges more or less demand drug companies for sponsorship. Year end account balance sheets allow the office bearers to boast of profits made almost entirely by extracting funds from the pharmaceutical companies.
We pretend not to know that every rupee the drug companies spend on all these activities is added to the price patients pay for their drugs. It is sheer hypocrisy when we appear to speak for the patients rights by complaining about the exorbitant prices of medicine.
Being so extravagant in our activities is inconsistent with the difficult times we are in. I have been arguing for a drastic reduction of the costs thus incurred. Using cheaper venues rather than five star hotels, making do with boxed meals where necessary at one third the cost of buffets are some of the practical solutions we can employ. For quite sometime now, many developed countries as well as neighbouring India have imposed drastic restrictions on the unholy alliance between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry.
Let’s make 2023 the year we start to minimize our dependence on funds from pharmaceutical companies for our academic activities and set an example to the community on how to thrive in the midst of an economic and humanitarian crisis. This I understand will be a difficult task to deviate from the culture we are used to over the years. As a council member I am personally hoping to continue my agitation to achieve this in the SLMA next year. I sincerely hope other colleges and associations too will work along these lines without any further delay.
Sri Lanka Medical Council
Our regulatory mechanisms too have been less than effective in maintaining standards that the society expects from the medical profession. The General Medical Council in the UK acts like an independent court of law in its regulatory function. In contrast, the Sri Lanka Medical Council, still working on an archaic medical ordinance, is restricted in its ability to do a proper regulatory function to maintain discipline among doctors. Many amendments to rectify its shortcomings, broadbase its composition and expand its scope proposed over the years by the Council itself, but needing approval by the parliament, have been ignored by the politicians concerned. It is sad to note that some leading members of the medical profession too have connived with the politicians to undermine the authority of the SLMC. As a result the SLMC is concerned mainly with the registration of doctors while moving at a snail’s pace in maintaining their discipline thereafter.
Our standing in society would be enhanced if we appear to stand with the people assisting them in their struggle for survival. We have more to do than just treating the victims after the damage is done. As much as we give prominence to preventive medicine, we have an important role to play in working against social injustice perpetrated by the rulers. People quite rightly believe that with the respect we command from all sectors, our positive actions on their behalf are likely to be more productive than the general public demonstrating vociferously on the streets.
As an example, we can see how the police are more careful in dealing with demonstrations and protests by lawyers and other professionals. Of late the legal profession has come out in a big way in defence of the people, though up to now they too have been silent bystanders while the laws were being applied unequally and grossly abused depending on the power and influence of individuals concerned.
Looking to the Future
Until we rethink our strategies and change course, people look upon doctors and other professionals as a privileged bunch looking after their own interests only and thriving at their expense.
There is little use in continuously boasting and congratulating ourselves for praiseworthy achievements so far in curative and preventive aspects of medicine despite limited resources. Those achievements are brought to nothing by the traitorous activities of unscrupulous politicians and their henchmen, which we have ignored so far. Rather than extolling the virtues and many good qualities still preserved in the medical profession, that is why I devoted this presentation mostly to highlight the shortcomings and the reluctance of our organisations in preventing or rectifying them. Thus we have failed our countrymen in many areas where we could have been proactive to prevent social maladies the Sri Lankans are suffering from now.
The medical profession should look inwards and effect a radical system change before we could influence the outside world. It is high time, though rather belatedly, to rethink our future role outside the sphere of academic activity, as an influential group of professionals, whom the society can look upon as their saviours rather than as a part of the problem.