The Doctor’s Strike: First Do No Harm

The Doctor’s Strike: First Do No Harm

5:18 p.m., Monday, September 3, 2012.

This date and time will forever be emblazoned in my mind. That’s the date and time my mother passed away at a private clinic in Accra. Granted, she was very sick when I took her there, but the lack of concern and interest in her by the hospital staff still haunts me today. For two days, she was under the care of a doctor who didn’t seem to understand that his level of response ought to differ between a patient with a headache, and a 72-year-old female weighing 70lbs with pulmonary respiratory issues — his response towards her should have been more heightened.

Since her passing, I’ve constantly wondered if her life may have been saved if she was attended to by a more caring hospital staff, those not jaded by deaths in hospitals and seemingly uninterested in investing the time it typically takes to save one life. Needless to say, this experience colored my view of Ghanaian doctors. But slowly, I am coming to a place where I tell myself not to think the worst of the doctor who cared for my mother — maybe he was doing his very best and because of my own private pain and grief, I just couldn’t see or appreciate his level of investment in her care.

I thought I had come a long way with this thinking until this week. I know it’s been brewing for a while, but as I read the headlines about doctors going on strike, the feelings about doctors I had tried so hard to squash, resurfaced. I pushed those feelings away, naively believing and holding on to the hope that the strike was really just a threat, and our Ghanaian doctors wouldn’t go through with. That didn’t happen.

The April 21 article on headlined “Blame any deaths on gov’t, not doctors – GMA” was difficult to read. Especially the statement attributed to the General Secretary of the Ghana Medical Association intimating that the Government of Ghana should take full responsibility for any life that may be lost at public hospitals from Monday, April 22, 2013.


The strike began on Monday, April 21, and has left me wondering about the importance of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take. Within the original Oath are the following statements:
 That I will not withdraw from my patients in their time of need;
 That I will be an advocate for patients in need and strive for justice in the care of the sick.
With this strike, Ghanaian physicians are not honoring those sentences in the Oath.

When your work is as critical to life and death as that of a doctor, that power should never be taken lightly. What Ghanaian doctors are telling us is that they are willing to let their patients and others die in order to make their point. In other words, the sacrifices ‘we the people’ have to make to ensure that doctors are appropriately compensated is giving up the lives of our family members and loved ones.

In any profession, it’s unjustifiable to allow the preventable death of anyone to occur as a means to achieving a personal goal. That signifies a complete disregard for human life and has no place in the temperament and makeup of anyone who wants to be, or is, a doctor. It is simply inconsistent with the characteristics of a physician. The power physicians hold over life and death should be sacred, one they should jealously guard, as indicated in the following statement also in the original Oath:

 That I will lead my life and practice my art with integrity and honor, using my power wisely.

The emphasis here is “using my power wisely.” Which begs the question: Is the strike the most wise way for doctors to use their power as it pertains to the life of the sick? And if they feel no empathy towards the loss of human lives, then our doctors are in the wrong profession.

There’s no inference here that the striking Ghanaian doctors may not have solid and valid reasons to be perturbed and disillusioned or shouldn’t stand up for what they believe is right. In any profession, one needs to feel validated and appreciated, and salary levels are one indication of that. The working conditions and long hours of doctors are difficult, and all physicians are to be commended for the work they do.

What I am inferring, however, is that when you voluntarily choose a profession that commits you to saving human lives, you should not enter into an act that could lead to the death of the very thing you have sworn to uphold. In trying to legitimately seek redress and come up with solutions, causing deaths should be off the table and should not be a viable option for those in a profession sworn to save lives.

There is a lot of blame to go around — none of the parties involved appear blameless. But how many lives will be lost because of this? And are those who have died —and will die — in the process, deserving of that fate?

Death is a lot of things. It’s heartbreaking and leaves you inconsolable. It is final. It should never be taken lightly. It silences a voice forever. It creates a pain and a vacuum in the life of those living that nothing can replace. It fills you with guilt, wondering if you could have done something differently that would have saved that person’s life. It leaves your mind with unanswered questions that play over and over again, leaving you exhausted and spent.

Yes, death is a lot of things, but it should never be used as a bargaining chip. This is the exchange of human lives for the demands of the doctors. How can that be acceptable?

Those who could potentially die are not faceless. They are our children, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, our fathers, our wives, our husbands, our grandfathers, our grandmothers, etc. How can doctors refuse to save the lives of our family members in need of medical care?

5:18 p.m., Monday, September 3, 2012, is forever emblazoned in my mind. How many others will have dates and times emblazoned in their minds as a result of this strike?

How many will die before the doctors’ needs are met, while the needs of those the doctors pledged and swore to meet go unmet?