Ahead of a planned strike by doctors countrywide, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) vowed that it would not relent until the SAITM issue was addressed. In an interview with Daily Mirror, GMOA Secretary Dr. Navin de Zoysa said that ample time was given to the government, but nothing was done.
You are planning on trade union action on Friday over the SAITM issue? How justifiable is it to inconvenience patients?
We had given enough time to sort out the issue starting from 2010. Then, we wrote a report about the Malabe Private Medical College. Today, they have not taken legal action against what is stated in that report. If there is any false complaint made by us in this report questioning the standard of the medical college, they can institute legal action. We called it a fraudulent institute. At that point, we called it an economic fraud. Today, there is even an academic fraud. Only students have gone to court seeking registration by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC). It amounts to the students taking on the institution in a way. The Health Minister and the Minister of Higher Education are with them. Only the SLMC is with the defence in the case.
"Universities Act says the relevant professional bodies have to be consulted. Then, you have to take a compliance certificate. Then only, it can be given. Neither Mr. Kiriella nor his predecessor Mr. Dissanayake got this certification in respect of SAITM"
The gazette notification, issued in connection with SAITM, is not legal. It was issued by Minister S.B. Dissanayake at that time. It is not a gazette recognizing the degree awarding status. A separate gazette is needed for it. Yet, the gazette notice issued is conditional. We pointed it out. Then, a committee was appointed. That affirmed our position in the report. Then, the Health Ministry Secretary, at the time, asked the SAITM authorities not to recruit any more students.
That is the understanding of the Ministry Secretary at that time. I do not know whether Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has a different stand. Recently, all the Deans of the State Medical Faculties submitted a report. They also affirmed the position that no degree awarding
status had been given to SAITM. The SLMC, the governing body of medical education, also says SAITM is not up to standard. No compliance of certificate given for awarding medical degrees. So, all the parties- the Ministry of Health under the then authorities, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), the SLMC and the Medical Faculty Deans subscribe to the same stand that SAITM cannot award degrees. However, the present Health Minister, and Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella have a stand otherwise.
Minister Kiriella asserts that there is a court ruling in favour of SAITM, and it cannot be altered whimsically. What is your stance?
Then, we have to look at the legal aspect. First, we should know that we live in Sri Lanka, not in Europe or anywhere else. So, the Chief Justice was removed in the way the government wanted. Now, they talk about how the law and order should be observed. Anyway, we have to think whether the relevant authorities serve justice to people. At the meeting with us, President Maithripala Sirisena said he should go by the decision of the committee appointed by him to look into it. The President has a better understanding. There are two legal procedures. Mr. Kiriella and Dr. Senaratne always refer to the ruling by the Court of Appeal. There are 42 pages in this. In 41 pages, the court elaborates on the areas with discrepancies in this regard. There are two cases here. The Higher Education Minister has the authority to grant the degree awarding status. The SLMC has the authority to decide on quality and service of medical profession and education. When it comes to SAITM, the SLMC can deal in regard to medical education. If minimum standards are set out, that has to be announced in a gazette notification. In 2009, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva tried to do it. In 2011 and 2012, President Sirisena, as the Health Minister, tried to do it. He, in fact, gazetted it. But, Parliament rejected it.
When granting degree awarding status, the Universities Act says the relevant professional bodies have to be consulted. Then, you have to take a compliance certificate. Then only, it can be given. Neither Mr. Kiriella nor his predecessor Mr. Dissanayake got this certification in respect of SAITM. So, SAITM is set up on an illegal format. It has to be revoked. That is the main demand of ours. They have manipulated the legal system to their advantage. SAITM has no degree awarding status granted through the
What does GMOA suggest to do in respect of SAITM- to standardize it or to nationalize it?
The pro- SAITM politicians and people speak in favour of private medical education. That is their logic. It may be. The GMOA has not taken a decision either for or against private medical education. We have taken a different stand. If the government is going to have a policy decision, that is it. We cannot comprise the quality of private medical education, though. That is our stand. SAITM started in 2009. First, it was started as something related to media. It moved to management next and then to medicine. It took the approval of the Board of Investment which clearly said the Ministry of Health should give approval for health related degrees to be offered. There is no such approval. If the law prevails, the SAITM authorities should be punished. Even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want to initiate legal action against them.
"The GMOA does not believe that SAITM has degree awarding status. Without having degrees, how can they ask for a qualifying examination to become doctors? As for foreign graduates, they are degree holders sitting that examination"
This regime fears legal action against SAITM Chairman Dr. Neville Fernando. There is this stage managed incident of SAITM CEO Sameera Senaratne being shot. No one was arrested in connection with it though the police found out what happened actually. The Prime Minister said he would give a report to Parliament regarding it. Nothing happened. This institution is safeguarded by politicians. Our demand is that SAITM should be abolished or nationalized. It is committing economic and academic frauds. SAITM should not exist.
Most people cry foul about the fate of current students there. In the financial scandal committed by Sakvithi, the Central Bank found it. The police arrested Sakvithi. If the students have the minimum qualifications, they can become doctors within a certain time period following the proper way. Before that, recruitments to SAITM should be stopped. Then legal action should be instituted against corrupt people. Then, SAITM should be nationalized. We can think of the students afterwards. The students have nothing to worry if they have basic qualifications. Merely because of the plight of these students, we cannot allow the government to legalize this institution.
Now, these students have invested so much money and a lot of time. What is the solution you offer them?
The right to education is one thing. But, the right to life and to have better healthcare is another. If we compare and contrast these two aspects, greater importance should be attached to the right to live. We cannot compromise the right to live over the right to education. The students are now embroiled in a crisis. There should be a way out. The government can take over this institution like in the Colombo North Medical Faculty case. The students with enough qualifications can become doctors one day. We do not want to victimize them.
The SAITM authorities say their students are taught by a fine set of medical teachers formerly attached to the state medical faculties. How do you respond?
The number of medical teachers will not suffice to ensure the quality of medical education here. The SLMC is having guidelines. They have not been gazetted by the Minister. That is the criterion adopted for assessing foreign medical degrees. A few months back, the SLMC disqualified Chittagong University citing the substandard quality. This is not the first time they are assessing it. In medical education, theory training and clinical training are two different things. Clinical training is the costliest and the most difficult part. It is the most important part. One cannot become a journalist merely by learning theories. You need practical training such as analysis of issues and all. Without proper clinical training, they cannot boast of having quality medical teachers.
What is the policy decision of GMOA on private medical education?
We have a divided opinion on private medical education. On SAITM, we have a united opinion. Some say private medical education is needed. Some others say no to it. If there is private medical education as decided by the government, standards will have to be maintained. We cannot compromise on that.
"If the students have the minimum qualifications, they can become doctors within a certain time period following the proper way. Before that, recruitments to SAITM should be stopped. Then legal action should be instituted against corrupt people"
How strong is the opinion in favour of private medical education?
I do not think the majority is for it. It is like 60 percent against it and 40 percent for it. We cannot neglect that 40 percent. Yet, there is a common position that standards have to be maintained, be it at state universities or private universities.All are against SAITM.
However, there is a school of thought that SAITM students should be allowed to sit a common qualifying examination like the one meant for foreign medical graduates. What is your stance?
First, they should be degree holders. The GMOA does not believe that SAITM has degree awarding status. Without having degrees, how can they ask for a qualifying examination to become doctors? As for foreign graduates, they are degree holders sitting that examination.
Anyway, how reasonable is it for you to take trade union action inconveniencing the public over this?
We explained the strategy to be worked out. We have done it since 2010. They have failed to act till 2017. In our report, we said at that time: This will grow into a full-blown problem unless the government addresses it. After the ruling by the Court of Appeal, we gave time. We did awareness campaigns. We prepared for trade union action earlier. We did not go for it considering the plight of patients. We are compelled by the government to go for it. We gave time for it in January, February and March to take a decision. Now it is April. There are another couple of days left. This is the final fight. We will not relent till this problem is sorted out. The government is trying to handle this matter in an adamant manner. We met the President twice. He did not make any decision yet. We hope he will make a statement before Friday. We want the President to verify whether the report submitted by his committee is correct or not.
"the Chief Justice was removed in the way the government wanted. Now, they talk about how the law and order should be observed. Anyway, we have to think whether the relevant authorities serve justice to people"