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Columbia: a case study in doctor protection

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For many years Columbia was rightly regarded as a dangerous place to practise medicine.

Thousands of by-standers and non-combatants, including health workers, became casualties of a vicious civil war and conflict between rival drug gangs.

Those rendering medical aid to the injured often found themselves in the firing line, and doctors often came under pressure from the police and the army to refuse treatment to perceived enemies of the state, or to disclose patient details.

But, in a major turnaround in the last six years, the country has come to be regarded as the “gold standard” of what can be achieved to establish universal respect for the sanctity and neutrality of health workers.

Increasingly alarmed by threats and violent attacks on health workers, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Columbian Red Cross in the late 1990s began a series of meetings with Health Ministry officials.

Over time, the Government came to recognise its responsibility to ensure necessary respect for, and protection of, health workers, and the Attorney-General and the Prosecutor-General became involved.

In 2008, the National Permanent Roundtable for the Respect of the Medical Mission in Colombia to ensure nationwide understanding of the need to protect health workers from harm, and to develop standards and guidelines for the behaviour of health workers, such as being correctly identified with the medical mission emblem and following safety procedures.

“One of the most significant contributions of the Roundtable has been to achiever a generalised understanding and acceptance of the fact that the protection of the medical mission goes beyond the context of health services and personnel, and does not only involve authorities strictly related to this field,” the ICRC’s Columbian representative, Dr Tatiana Florez, said. “Today, it is understood that its protection involves political authorities like the Government, the Ombudsman and the Attorney-General’s Office, among other state entities.”

Adrian Rollins