Pakistani news channels came under scathing criticism on Saturday for barging into hospital emergency rooms without considering the fallout of their action on paramedics.
Health, security and legal experts turned their fury on to media at a debate discussing the security of doctors and called for the enforcement of strict guidelines at public and private hospitals.
“Can they [the media] barge into emergency rooms in combined military hospitals?” asked Mehtab Akbar Rashidi, an executive director at Hum TV. “They can’t. So why can’t the same rule be applied at other hospitals.”
Often doctors busy treating patients after an accident are pushed to speak in front of the camera, she said. “They are asked questions on how many people are injured. We must also learn to say ‘no’ at times like these.”
The debate, ‘Saving Patients-Protecting Doctor’, was held at the Liaquat National Hospital on Saturday. It is a topic increasingly discussed as the number of attacks on medical professionals go up in Karachi where family and friends of victims turn violent. In some extreme cases, some men have fired in the air inside hospitals in order to vent their anger. One of the worst outbreaks was experienced by the staff of Jinnah hospital in 2006 after the suicide bombing at Nishtar Park, targeting the Sunni Tehreek. Maddened activists and supporters couldn’t be held at bay by the accident and emergency doors which they were trying to break down in order to see the body of the party leader inside.
Rashidi said that the way the media reports bomb blasts and shoot-outs enrages people and increases their anxiety. “This trend of taking cameras into the operation theatres must be stopped immediately.”
Doctors expressed their helplessness against the aggressive attitude of people who bring weapons into hospitals. Threats and intimidations are common in ERs of most of the hospitals in the city, they said.
Recently at a private hospital in Clifton, the enraged brother of a gunshot victim brought backup in the form of men with guns and threatened to extract ‘an eye for an eye’ by killing the surgeon who tried to save the patient on the operating table.
“Our society has become prone to violence,” remarked Justice (retired) Nasir Aslam Zahid. “People who brandish weapons in hospitals know they will go scot free.” News channels ignore their ethical responsibility in the rush to break news. They forget that they aren’t supposed to sensationalise it.
Many cases of violence are precipitated by the perception that the doctor has been negligent. Prof. Tariq Salahuddin acknowledged this, saying that there are some doctors who are sometimes negligent in treating patients, who die. “But is anyone tracking the records of the hundreds of thousands of patients being treated in different hospitals?” he asked, in an attempt to remind the audience of the fuller picture.
Indeed, what many people forget is the conditions and pay that medical professionals work with. The Pakistan government spends just one per cent of its budget on health while other countries put on average at least 15 per cent into it. “If this is kept in mind then I think we are doing a fairly good job,” he said. “With so many patients being treated, I am sure cases of negligence on the part of doctors must be negligible.” In fact, these cases form a fraction of the total number of patients treated. But unfortunately, the sensationalisation of cases as ‘sexy’ news tends to blackout what the remaining part of the picture is.
Dr Abdul Sattar Jaffer recommended that ER doctors properly hear out their patients. “Before any treatment starts, this is the most important thing,” he said. “Listen to them, gather their history. This is how many accidents can be avoided.” If a doctor wins their patient’s confidence by giving them good advice, the dynamics of violence are mitigated if something goes wrong.
As for the targeted killings of doctors, the former chief of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, Jameel Yusuf, told the audience that most of the murders have had a sectarian undertone. This may be cold comfort for their families, but is perhaps important to note in terms of the different types of violence, their causes and prevention for medical workers in Karachi.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2012.