Monday, January 24, 2011

Why a doctors’ union is long overdue

Sunday Nation 23 January 2011

Just over four months ago, the Ministry of Medical Services threatened to stop funding post-graduate training for young Kenyan doctors.

After much hue and cry, the ministry seems to have quietly backed down and things seemingly returned to “normal”. However, it would be important to heed the saying that still waters run deep.

One of the outcomes of the outcry four months ago was that some junior doctors started organising themselves to agitate for their rights in a more coherent fashion.

Unfortunately, the ministry hierarchy attempted to crack down on the perceived leaders of the “rebellion” and a few of them received interdiction letters.

Instead of silencing dissent once and for all, this action only served to galvanise doctors in employment towards a common cause.

The new Constitution’s progressive Bill of Rights came to the rescue just at the right moment. Unlike the previous document, it guarantees every worker the right “to fair remuneration, to reasonable working conditions, to form, join or participate in the activities and programmes of a trade union and to go on strike”.

In the spirit of the new Constitution, therefore, young doctors have embarked on a process that will very soon see the registration of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists’ Union.

Under the framework of this union, medical professionals will be able to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employers, who will include the Government’s ministries of Health, parastatals and private hospitals.

It is expected that this union will escape the paralysis that has for a very long time stopped the Kenya Medical Association (KMA) from successfully representing doctors as far as remuneration and better working conditions are concerned.

KMA’s main handicap was that it was operating mainly on a gentleman’s agreement with the minister in charge of health. Negotiations were often informal and entirely at the mercy of the minister and Afya House functionaries.

A further handicap was that negotiations often left out doctors employed in parastatals and in the private sector.

With the formation of a union, it is expected that the true worth of a doctor’s service will be revealed, and both the government and the private sector will be compelled to fairly remunerate their doctors or face industrial action.

For a long time, efforts to improve the lot of doctors in employment have been hobbled by the notion that because doctors hold a “special place” in society and provide an essential service, they should not dirty their white-coats by involving themselves in “lowly” union activities.

Indeed, under the previous regime, they were expressly banned from forming or joining unions.

Thanks to this notion of nobility, doctors continue to provide their services to a thankless populace while receiving pay that was average over two decades ago.

Most junior doctors enter the civil service with a net pay of less than KSh50,000, yet they spend days on end attending to all sorts of emergencies with little sleep or rest.

Climbing through the ranks is no consolation either, as the levels of remuneration do not match that of people with less education or skills.

Anyone interested in greater investment in healthcare must therefore support this noble initiative. Remember, if the doctors are not well, no one’s health is guaranteed.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University School of Medicine

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