Government doctors have gone on strike in Kerala, protesting changes to outpatient services at family health centres.
The strike began on Friday, April 13th and will continue indefinitely. Doctors are protesting state government plans to extend the duration of outpatient services in the state. The original schedule was 9am to 12pm; it is now 9am to 6pm.
The strike was triggered by the suspension of a doctor at Kumaramputhur Family Health Centre in Palakkad, who refused to work the newly prescribed evening hours.
Doctors say running outpatient services into the evenings is unfeasible unless more doctors are recruited. However, state health minister K.K. Shailaja denies this. She said that, for every hospital where outpatient hours have been extended, three more doctors have been recruited. Shailaja took a hardline against the strike, which she called “a challenge against the public”.
‘A strong stance’
Striking doctors remained steadfast in the face of government ultimatums, however. KGMOA Secretary Jithesh V accused the state government of “trying to clamp down on the protest with an iron hand”. As quoted by The New Indian Express, the secretary warned of “a strong stance” from KGMOA if this is the case, “including tendering mass resignation”.
“We are ready for talks, but the government is not budging,” Jithesh added. “It is condemnable that the Health Minister is remaining adamant.”
The doctors’ handling of the strike has been criticised. Strike action was announced by the Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMOA) the evening before the stir began. Many patients were unaware that the action was going to be taken and some arrived at clinics in the early hours of April 13, only to be turned away.
KGMOA has said new admissions will not be accepted except for those in need of emergency care. Casualty wings will remain operational, while other inpatient services will only run until April 18.
The Kerala State Human Rights Commission (KSHRC) has called for the government to explore reaching a settlement with striking doctors, reports The New Indian Express. They said “to deny treatment to patients amounts to blatant violation of human rights. Though the doctors have the right to protest, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the patients’ health and life”.
A history of strike action in Kerala
This is not the first example of strike action being taken in Kerala in recent months. Junior doctors went on strike last year in protest of government plans to increase the pension age. They also called for the number of posts in hospitals to be increased, as well as for existing vacancies to be filled.
The junior doctor strike ended after Shailaja assured doctors that the government would create new posts for doctors as part of its Mission Aardram project, which aims to increase the delivery of healthcare services in the state. However, it is this scheme that recommended the increasing of outpatient hours, thus drawing the ire of doctors and prompting this strike action to be taken.
Doctors in Kerala also joined a nationwide protest in January against the Centre’s Medical Commission Bill. This bill contained a number of controversial provisions, including allowing for homoeopaths to practise allopathic medicine after completing a year-long bridge course and the replacement of the Medical Council of India. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) called for an indefinite strike in response.