Are doctors entitled to strike?

Criticism of doctors strikes by government figures and television hosts are an attempt to divert public attention away from the real issue, which is a lack of political will to build adequate health infrastructure for citizens, Rashwan Shabaan, assistant secretary general of the Doctors Syndicate argues.

The common criticism that doctors are endangering public health through their strike action is unwarranted, Shabaan adds, as hospitals and medical facilities only ever go on partial strikes, which they are entitled to under the law, and mean that emergency care and all urgent medical treatment is maintained.

A statement released by the Doctors Syndicate last Saturday expresses support for doctors at Matareya Hospital, who went on strike at the end of January amid the fallout from a police attack on two doctors who refused to forge a medical report.

The syndicate demanded the public suspension of the officers involved in the assault and closed Matareya hospital, in accordance with recommendations from the general assembly and former syndicate councils. Additionally, the syndicate determined that any official who abuses medical personnel should be referred to a disciplinary hearing before its professional ethics committee.

The Doctors Syndicate has called for a special general assembly meeting on Friday 12 February to discuss the protection of doctors in the wake of a number of assaults on physicians in hospitals across the country.

The health minister and other senior officials in the ministry have been invited to attend the general assembly meeting, with an ultimatum that strike action will escalate if government officials do not attend and take the matter seriously.

Matareya doctors agreed a few days ago to reduce their strike action and return to work in hospital emergency rooms, amid criticism their actions were threatening public health and despite a lack of resolution concerning their demands.

The gynecology and obstetrics department at Banha Hospital, in the Nile Delta governorate of Qalyubia, also launched an open-ended partial strike on February 6, after an individual claiming to be a police officer brandished a weapon and threatened doctors, the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm and Veto news portals reported.

Friday’s general assembly session will determine whether or not doctors will embark on a nationwide strike against acts of police intimidation and assaults in the workplace.

Despite support from several professional syndicates, the decision by doctors to strike has been criticized by members of parliament and a number of media channels.

This is not new, however, as similar assertions of neglect were levied at doctors amid previous general strikes in 2012 and 2014, when medical staff demanded an increase in the state’s health budget and the application of a representative doctor’s cadre.

Although the right to strike is protected by law, according to Egypt’s constitution, Shabaan says there are no laws that directly organize workers strikes.

The supreme administrative court determined peaceful strikes are a constitutional right for all employees, as long as they don’t harm public facilities, in a ruling last July. Using the example of a female worker whose salary was reduced as a result of her strike action, the court said, “the reluctance of the legislator to organize strikes does not deprive employees of the right to utilize such action,” adding that this is the right of a “great people who have gone through two revolutions.”

In cases of threat or attack, doctors are entitled to “abstention from work and the compulsory closure of hospitals or any other medical facilities until they have been effectively and completely secured,” according to a booklet published by the Doctors Syndicate, titled, “Know your rights,” which included questions and answers to familiarize doctors with their legal rights.

However, the nature of the medical profession makes the case of doctors strikes exceptional. Doctors strikes are not complete abstentions from work. They only include “cold cases,” according to Shabaan, who explains this refers to non-chronic cases that do not require urgent care. Emergency cases, deliveries, dialysis and intensive care are all upheld in the case of such strikes and closures.

“A hospital on strike works exactly as it does on holidays. Incubators, intensive care units and inpatients are attended as usual, only the outpatient clinics stop working, except in emergency cases,” Shabaan explains. This makes the organization of doctors strikes a complicated matter, Ayman Sabea, the doctor and health researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) explains.

Sabea says the main point of doctors strikes is symbolic. “The mere announcement of a strike is in itself capable of sending a message,” he asserts. The delicate circumstances that surround such a decision means doctors strikes are often only announced when problems become urgent. But he argues concerns should be raised as soon as a strike is declared, before its implementation, so an impartial committee can be established to examine the demands of strikers.

The development of medical services should not be considered separately from the service providers, Shabaan argues. Improving the health system in Egypt depends to a great extent on the development of doctors themselves, which means providing quality training services to improve their skills and facilitating their access to higher education, as well as providing an adequate working environment and appropriate medical tools and equipment.

Sabea laments the absence of such demands from the current strike, which he says is only focused on protecting doctors in the work place. 

Mohamed Hamama 

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