“My life is under threat now,” says Dr Nil Mani Upadhyaya, registrar of the Nepal Medical Council (NMC).
On December 15th, two men were waiting for him at his gate on returning from work and attacked him with a khukuri knife. Dr Upadhyaya is lucky to have suffered only minor cuts. The men then fled on motorbikes and could not be followed.
Why was he attacked? “That is the main question for me,” he explains, “I have no single enemy after 25 years of practicing medicine. There has been no demand for money. There has not even been a bad conversation on the telephone.”
“Part of our role at NMC is licensing doctors. There are some people who have trained outside Nepal, in Russia, or India who have failed the licensing exam to practice in Nepal. Some have failed so many times, up to 14, 15 times. Our guess is that it might have come from that group – but we really don’t know, we’re just speculating.”
The attack was a trigger for the NMC’s sister organisation, the Nepal Medical Association (NMA), to threaten a one day bandh on 28th December unless their demands were met. The NMA represent the interests of medical professionals in Nepal. The bandh will result in a voluntary stopping of work in all departments except emergency.
Dr Kedar K.C., president of the NMA explained that the primary demand was for measures to increase safety of doctors in the workplace. Apparently there have been up to 40 attacks on doctors in the last 2 years across Nepal. Bundled in with this are a call for increased health budget, increase in the number of doctors, better equipment, abolishing 5% tax on salaries (which is anyway passed on to the consumer) all the way to setting up Bir Hospital as a centre of excellence and the foundation of a new medical university.
This is a worthy list but already the NMA’s strategy has fallen apart before it has started. Firstly it has diluted the issue of violence against doctors with many other complicated issues, including some self-serving ones (tax reductions, increase in private hours allowance). It could be perceived as using the frightening attack on a senior doctor to force through an increase in their benefits.
Secondly it is using the thuggish tactic of the bandh. While this could be justified in extreme cases, and after all other options have been explored, here the NMA is offering the public punishment as a kneejerk reaction to an event of 13 days earlier that additionally didn’t happen in a hospital. In calling a bandh, while not blocking roads, it puts itself in the same camp as all of the other flag-waving, violent, tyre-burning, unwilling-to-negotiate rock-heads.
What does the head of the NMC think about the bandh? “From a personal point of view, and that of registrar, I would not support it, but then I am a victim too. From a medical ethics point of view, I should not support it. It is a very crucial question for me.”
If Dr Upadhyaya has his reservations, it would seem unlikely that the long-suffering public are going to be offering their unswerving support. And there is the third point – never call a strike of a public service unless you have built up firm public support for your case beforehand.
How does Dr Upadhyaya he see the best way to improve the protection for medical staff in Nepal? “It is very difficult question. If the whole country is going in one direction, how can you protect [anything]. We are in the same direction as Afghanistan; there is no law and order here.”
“The home minister said about a year ago ‘I cannot safeguard my own life, how can I safeguard the lives of others?’.”
So then what good is this bandh going to do? Let’s wait and see. Perhaps the government will shrug their shoulders and call their bluff.
The NMA has missed a great opportunity for developing public relations. It could have detailed the terrible cases of violence against doctors, the dedication that medical staff show, the long hours, awful equipment, weak management and the fact that hospital budgets are lower than WHO minimum recommended levels. They could have played on the fact that ministers often use the public purse to get treatment overseas. Or wheeled out some happy, satisfied patients to rally support for doctors. It could have managed the expectations of the public, that doctors always do their best for patients, but that they cannot work miracles and sadly some patients will die.
It could have opened a conversation with the public about why doctors (and society at large) are suffering violence and what should be done. And then, importantly, show that they’re actually listening and thank them for engaging.
Instead, tomorrow, doctors will further loose favour with the public and strengthen the choking culture of the bandh as the only way to fix problems. In many ways, they will have just made the problem worse.