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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Protest of doctors: a basic human right or an ethical dilemma

Imran Naeem Abbasi

Author Affiliations

Research fellow, Department of Community Health Sciences, Aga Khan University, Stadium Road, P.O. Box-3500, Karachi, Pakistan

BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:24  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-24

Published: 10 March 2014

Abstract

Background

Peaceful protests and strikes are a basic human right as stated in the United Nations’ universal declaration on human rights. But for doctors, their proximity to life and death and the social contract between a doctor and a patient are stated as the reasons why doctors are valued more than the ordinary beings. In Pakistan, strikes by doctors were carried out to protest against lack of service structure, security and low pay. This paper discusses the moral and ethical concerns pertaining to the strikes by medical doctors in the context of Pakistan. The author has carefully tried to balance the discussion about moral repercussions of strikes on patients versus the circumstances of doctors working in public sector hospitals of a developing country that may lead to strikes.

Discussion

Doctors are envisaged as highly respectable due to their direct link with human lives. Under Hippocrates oath, care of the patient is a contractual obligation for the doctors and is superior to all other responsibilities. From utilitarian perspective, doctors’ strikes are justifiable only if there is evidence of long term benefits to the doctors, patients and an improvement in service delivery. Despite that, it is hard to justify such benefits against the risks to the patients. Harms that may incur to the patients include: prolongation of sufferings, irreversible damage to health, delay in treatment, death, loss of work and waste of financial resources.

In a system of socialized medicine, government owing to greater control over resources and important managerial decisions should assume greater responsibility and do justice to all stakeholders including doctors as well as patients. If a doctor is underpaid, has limited options for career growth and is forced to work excessively, then not only quality of medical care and ability to act in the best interests of patients is adversely affected, it may also lead to brain drain.

Summary

There is no single best answer against or in favor of doctors’ industrial action. The author calls for the debate and discussion to revitalize the understanding of the ethical predicaments of doctors’ strikes with patient care as the priority.

Keywords:
Ethical dilemma; Doctors’ strikes; Pakistan; Service structure; Lack of security; Low pay; Socialized medicine; Utilitarian theory; Brain drain