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The medical profession is under attack: WMA

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The physical safety and professional autonomy of doctors around the world is under attack from governments, armed groups and individuals, hampering their work and putting the health of patients at serious risk, according to incoming World Medical Association President Dr Ketan Desai.

Speaking following a spate of deadly attacks on hospitals and medical centres in war-torn Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, Dr Desai told the WMA annual assembly in Taiwan that increasingly the Geneva Convention was being “practised more in breach than observance, invariably ending up in flagrant violation of human rights”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the sustained bombing of medical facilities in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo as war crimes, amid claims that 95 per cent of pre-war medical personnel in the city have fled since the conflict began.

In Yemen, Saudi-led forces have been accused of targeting several health facilities, including a strike on a Medicins Sans Frontieres hospital in which 11 died and 19 were injured.

Dr Desai praised the dedication of doctors and health professionals working in these countries, and said they deserved protection: “To a physician, a patient is neither a friend nor an enemy. They legitimately need protection from violence while at work, whether in war or civil conflict situations”.

Doctors also risked physical attack outside war zones.

The WMA President, who was elected to the post after serving as President of the Medical Council of India, said medical practitioners working in many parts of the world, particularly in Asia, were being assaulted, and hospitals and clinics ransacked and damaged, by angry patients and their families.

In addition to these physical threats, Dr Desai said that in countries as diverse as Turkey, India and the United Kingdom, governments were attempting to encroach on the independence and autonomy of the medical professional, to the detriment of patients.

“Regulation of clinical practice, framing evidence-based standard treatment guidelines, defining and checking professional malpractice and medical education all need vital professional independence and a democratic system based on meaningful participative decision-making,” he said. “In many countries there are continued political attempts to undo or marginalise autonomy and self-governance of the medical profession, including mauling and trampling on the trinity of professional autonomy, clinical independence and self-governance.”

Dr Desai said the WMA was alert to these threats and would continue to fight government efforts to make the medical profession subservient.

But he said part of this involved ensuring the medical profession acted with honesty and integrity, something that was at risk in many countries because physicians were prescribing and referring patients based on pecuniary self-interest or kickbacks.

In other developments, the WMA General Assembly:

  • approved ethical guidelines on the collection and use of identifiable health data (the Declaration of Taipei);
  • demanded an immediate and impartial inquiry into the bombing of hospitals in Aleppo;
  • urged national medical associations and other health groups to divest fossil fuel stocks;
  • called for greater focus on care of the elderly; and
  • said doctors must be prepared to intervene to protect girls from undergoing female genital mutilation.

Adrian Rollins