Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘All we want is justice’

In the light of allegations of assaults by police officers against doctors in Cairo, the Secretary-General of the Doctors Syndicate, Mona Mina, explains the need to pursue both doctors’ and patients’ rights to Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Our story is not over because justice has not been done. We are not picking fights or fishing for conflicts. We want doctors to be safe while performing their medical duties, and we want them to be best fit and equipped to serve their patients,” said Mona Mina, secretary-general of the Doctors Syndicate in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

Mina was speaking less than 48 hours after a spectacular show of doctors at their syndicate in Cairo on Friday, where they protested against repeated assaults by low-ranking police officers against colleagues working in public hospitals and, in particular, at Al-Matariya Hospital in Cairo.

An assault took place on 28 January when doctors at the hospital were not only attacked for declining to provide a forged medical report for the wounds that one of the officers had suffered but were also forced to forego making an official complaint after intimidation by higher-ranking officers.

The officers allegedly went as far as to threaten to hold the doctors in custody at the very same police station they were attempting to lay charges against their alleged attackers.

According to Mina, whose name has long been associated with underlining the civil role of the country’s professional syndicates, the message sent by last week’s “unprecedentedly well-attended assembly” was “very specific and very clear”.

“We are not talking politics, and we are not pursuing anything but our legitimate rights, which mean the protection of the dignity of doctors and the safety of hospitals for all patients and medical workers,” she said.

This focussed approach and the efficient preparations that led to the demonstration on Friday were basically about the clarity of the “uncontroversial and undivided objective,” Mona said. “This is one reason we have insisted on steering clear from politics, because we want to address what matters to doctors in their strict capacity as physicians.”

This is the reason that brought around 10,000 — some estimates suggest close to 12,000 — doctors to protest at the headquarters of the syndicate, the Dar Al-Hikma, on Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street in the heart of the capital and a short walk away from the seat of the parliament, the prime minister’s office and that of the minister of the interior.

“I can bet you that had politics been introduced into the debate we could not have secured this solid presence, or for that matter the considerable solidarity that we have been generously offered by many other syndicates, including the press and lawyers syndicates, as well as from several unions including those of the medical professions,” she said.

Mina insisted that the “confrontation with the state” — though she takes exception to such words — could have been averted had the officers involved been brought to justice. “We were left with no choice but to pursue a unified position from the syndicate,” she firmly stated.

According to the chronology offered by the doctors concerned, the attack took place on 28 January. On the following day, one of the attackers fell off his motorcycle and went to the Heliopolis Hospital for emergency treatment before going home. He then returned a few hours later in pursuit of a medical report that did not match his case.

“So there were two attempts to force medical doctors to forge reports — and in both cases, contrary to the narrative that is being presented in parts of the media, the doctors concerned declined to provide the forged reports. Attempts to divide the doctors failed because the violation of the dignity of the doctors at the hands of low-ranking police officers went beyond being just a one-off incident, as some state officials like to argue,” Mina said.

On 10 February, almost two weeks after the widely publicised assault, which was followed by several others by low-ranking police officers against doctors and others, the officers in question were questioned, but were then almost immediately sent away with the guarantee that they would keep their jobs.

“This was humiliating and not just because it took the legal bodies two weeks to react. It was also humiliating because the charges against the officers in question did not cover the full scale of the assaults they had committed. These have been documented by several amateur videos, and the officers concerned were not even held in custody,” Mina said.

On Friday, the syndicate assembly adopted, with a considerable majority, several steps that fell short of pursuing the full strike that some physicians, especially from the younger generation, had been calling for on the basis that the state would only attend to the security of doctors and hospitals if there was a collapse in medical services.

Instead, the assembly decided that in two weeks, “to allow for necessary preparations to be taken,” as Mina explained, all patients needing medical help will be admitted through the emergency rooms of the country’s hospitals and thus would be treated for free.

“We wanted to be very clear that we are on the side of the patients and that part of our struggle is in their interest, but we also wanted to tell the state that enough is enough and that we need to see justice done,” Mina said.

The free services will start on 26 February and will continue until the police officers concerned are sent for trial. The syndicate also demanded that no one, not even police or military officers, should be allowed into hospitals carrying arms and that no civilians should be allowed in with arms either, even if these are licenced.

 “Nobody needs arms inside a hospital except for the security of the hospital. This is very basic, I think,” Mina said. The Doctors Syndicate has also referred Health Minister Ahmed Emad to a disciplinary committee, which will question him on his failure to act on the assault against doctors at the Al-Matariya Hospital.

If censured by the committee, the minister, who is accused by the assembly of the syndicate of having failed in his duty to ensure the security of doctors, could be denied his licence to practice.

“We did not want to take things this far, and it is not the fault of the syndicate or of the assembly that the minister unfortunately decided to ignore the fate of the assaulted doctors when they were being intimidated by the police to withdraw their complaint or be held in police custody on charges of having assaulted the officers,” Mina said.

She said that the pursuit of justice would continue “unintimidated by any pressure or defamation campaign launched against medical doctors”. She added, “We know what we are up against, and we know that some in the media have been attempting to confuse accounts of the assaults on doctors, alleging medical errors.”

 Mina continued: “This futile tool of intimidation has been used every time doctors have attempted to complain about anything, from the inadequate pay of doctors working in public hospitals to the deficiencies in hospital equipment to the failure of the state to honour its commitment to support post-graduate studies for all graduates of public medical colleges.”

Mina accepts that some doctors do commit errors and that some patients do face complications as a result. She also accepts that at times there has been negligence when some doctors have overlooked medical ethics, or some private hospitals have deliberately compromised hygiene and equipment standards. However, she firmly refuses to lump these problems under the loose banner of doctors’ mistakes.

“Of course doctors make mistakes, but we have to examine these mistakes closely to decide where they come from. Some come from the lack of equipment and medicine in the public hospitals, and this is an issue coming from the health share of the state budget. Some come as a result of inadequate training, and this continues to be the case as the state continues to decline the many propositions offered by the syndicate to upgrade the training of medical doctors,” Mina said.

“If a doctor in hospital cannot save a patient because he cannot do the right scans or provide the necessary medication, this is not an act of negligence. It is not the fault of the doctor if he is denied a state-subsidised fellowship and is forced to pursue it at a high cost in a private university that ultimately sends graduate students to the public hospitals,” she said.

“I am not suggesting that there are not errors, but I wish to say that there is a difference between mistakes and negligence. I am not contesting that there is medical negligence or undermining the role of the syndicate in penalising those convicted of negligence,” she said.

Mina accuses certain media outlets of deliberately confusing negligence with mistakes and complications to “help those who wish to strip doctors of the public support and sympathy they have had over the past few days”.

A case in point, she argued, had come in “recent press reports that suggested that ophthalmologists at public hospitals had caused damage to the vision of patients after injecting them with hazardous medicine brought from outside the pharmacy of the hospital, with at least two patients having lost sight in one eye”.

Said Mina, “This story is a very good example of attempts to confuse public opinion. First of all, in nine cases out of ten, I don’t wish to say 10 out of 10, drugs are not available in small public hospitals and they have to be brought from outside the usually empty hospital pharmacy. Second, the medicine that was allegedly hazardous is widely used. Third, the complications that some of the patients faced were related to infection, and this was a result of the substandard hygiene at the hospital concerned.”

The syndicate is not about to compromise the rights of patients, and it will pursue all legal steps to duly penalise negligence, she said. However, it will also counter allegations designed to demoralise doctors “who are more often than not working under a lot of pressure and in very challenging conditions”.

Mina declined to dwell on the political implications of the impressive assembly of doctors last Friday. “We had no political intentions, and we don’t wish to give any unintended significance to what we did. We were there to protect the dignity of doctors and the rights of patients to be treated in safe hospitals, and that is what we stand for,” she firmly stated.

If the demands of the doctors are not met, then a new round of consultations will be held to decide the next steps. “In any case, our regular assembly is due on 25 March, and we will see what happens then,” Mina said.

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