By Sreya Salim:
No dharnas, no slogan shouting, no public property destroyed, no protest marches, not a day taken off duty. Still, the postgraduate students of Kerala’s government medical colleges succeeded in making their voices heard. This October saw more than 1,000 young doctors expressing their disagreement with the government policies regarding working hours of doctors and demanding their rights dutifully and peacefully. An extra 24 hours of work and a mass blood donation drive were the methods chosen by Kerala’s post graduate medical students to voice their protest.
The postgraduate community in Kerala consists of more than a thousand doctors, who form the main workhorses of medical colleges. They work for about 100-120 hours a week, sometimes for more than 72 hours at a stretch. Unmanageable schedule, hostile working conditions, lack of security, meagre stipend are only some of the problems faced by the residents.
“For the last three years junior residents have been receiving a monthly salary of Rs. 32,000. Though the stipend of other workforces has been raised, doctors still draw a salary much below the national average, which is about Rs. 47,500,” said Dr. Varun Chandran, former president of the Kerala Medical Postgraduate association, Calicut chapter. Another important problem is the lack of security for doctors. The number of incidents of doctors being manhandled by the kin of patients has risen recently. “With absolutely no protection offered to us, night duties in busy casualties and wards often become nightmares,” said Dr. Sajin Lal, secretary of Kerala Medical PG association, Calicut chapter. There is also the problem of regular faculty being transferred to new medical colleges created across Kerala. This shunting not only increases the workload of PG students but also affects their studies. Moreover, most of the medical colleges don’t have enough infrastructural facilities or enough books and journals in the libraries.
Another important challenge is the impending decision of the government to employ MBBS graduates as teachers in medical colleges, diluting the entire system of medical education. “Though we had been demanding solutions to these problems for a while now, no action was taken. It was in this context that we decided to strike“, he said.
Apart from a hike in stipend, a centralized security system, and better facilities, the demands of the doctors also included reconsideration of the government’s decision to employ medical graduates as teachers in medical colleges.
The strike was organized in two phases. On the first day, all government medical colleges of Kerala had the postgraduate students working a full 24 hours extra apart from their daily duties. The second phase consisted of a mass blood donation drive involving more than 500 doctors from each college.
“We did not want the patient care to be affected by our protest. Hence we decided to raise our voices in a different way,” said Dr. Varun, who describes the protest as morally right and powerful. The response was largely overwhelming. There was support flowing in from different spheres of public activity. The duty bound doctors were appreciated by many prominent individuals and senior physicians. Media and the public too lauded the decision of the medicos to stay away from aggression.
“Discussions have gained pace after our strike. Eyes of authorities have opened, and we expect the grievances to be addressed soon,” Dr.Sajin Lal said. “Seeing the happy faces of the patients, I knew our voices wouldn’t go unheard,” he remarked with a broad smile.
A similar protest was also organised recently by the medical fraternity in response to the suspension of a doctor in Trivandrum without proper enquiry after alleged medical negligence, in which the doctors worked an extra hour. Physicians in India have also come together to raise their voices against permitting graduates in alternative medicine to practice allopathy, the mass transfer of doctors to new medical colleges, increasing number of attacks against doctors, etc. However, seldom have these led to serious action rather than discussions, debates and news reports. Providing a positive work environment, proper security and fair pay for doctors has become the need of the hour.
The success of the postgraduate community in Kerala points to the fact that silence, at times, has the loudest voice. Doctors form the backbone of our healthcare system. Protection of the rights of physicians is indeed the first step towards ensuring a better picture in the health sector and thus a better future for the nation.
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