Disturbing symptoms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2001, 12:00am

Tempers have become so frayed since the Medical Council made its controversial finding in the case of the doctor who took a mobile phone call while performing surgery, that calm discussion about medical standards has become well-nigh impossible.

Perhaps the emergency meeting the council is to call in the aftermath of the row will restore the balance. Nothing is to be gained by more recrimination. However, the council must know many of its decisions result in public disquiet and cynicism about its true aims. If it hopes to dispel that view, the best way would be to explain quietly the reasons behind its conclusions. Responding to criticism by telling critics they don't know what they are talking about is no way to get over its side of the story.

People are genuinely puzzled about why the Hospital Authority bans the use of mobile phones in operating theatres or on wards, while the body supposed to set ethical standards for the profession seems to find it acceptable when those rules are flouted. This is a question that does not require specialist medical knowledge. But it cries out for an answer. Should there not be consistency among colleagues?

That is possibly the reason why Medical Association president Dr Lo Wing-lok has stated his personal position on his Web site, saying 'doctors should refrain from using any device other than communicating with patient or colleagues during treatment'. But, as a council member who sat in on the case, he says it is a matter of individual consideration how the profession should treat the doctor concerned.

Perhaps so. But why is there such disparity in medical standards? The Hospital Authority has a right - perhaps a duty - to enforce its rules. Is it not entitled to backing from colleagues?

Behind the row lie more worrying concerns, and that is why calm and reason must be restored as quickly as possible. If not, doctors are in danger of developing a siege mentality, and patients will increasingly resort to legal action at any suggestion of error. All this can be avoided if the profession sets and upholds uniform standards the public can rely on.