Government should provide proof of whether it protects convicted doctors or citizens’ health

Centre for Civic Education (CCE) considers scandalous the first instance verdict for the «case of babies of Bijelo Polje» from 2014, where five of them were infected due to medical negligence while one of the infected babies has, unfortunately, died. The convicted doctors have by this verdict sentenced to a less than the statutory minumum punishment with possibility of their unhindered return to work after serving their “punishment”. This is a terrifying message both from the point of view of the legal certainty and equality of all before the law, the further victimization of families who have survived this trauma, and the necessity of returning reputation to medical profession that must be released from all those who disgrace this profession from inside, endangering also the lives of citizens.

Such verdict is inadequate in relation to gravity of the established criminal offense and it is not in function of preventing similar cases in the future. On the contrary, such a mild penal policy for the most serious crimes against human health will only contribute to the further collapse of the quality of the health system and trust of citizens which is already at a low level. On the other hand, in this case, none from the system that is obliged to take care of who, what and how works, and under what conditions the healthcare institution operates and provides services to citizens, was held responsible for the established and exceptionally bad situation in the Bijelo Polje hospital that could lead to severe consequences for health of patients. Therefore, the CCE appeals to the Prosecution to file an appeal against such a judgment in the further proceeding and to request pronouncement of a far more severe punsihment, which will be more proportionate to the serious criminal offense that was committed.

For years, the Montenegrin health system is at the very bottom of all relevant national and international lists that rank the quality of health care. There is almost not a segment of the functioning system in which there are no problems – from the bad conditions in which doctors work, technical negligence of health institutions, reduced status of doctors in terms of earnings and position in society, outflow of personnel from the medical profession, problem of corruption that is not being dealt with for decades, up to system of staffing which gives a preference to party affiliation in relation to quality and expertise. It should thus be even more condemned the statement of Minister Hrapovic who stands ready to protect the doctors convicted of negligence with tragic consequences, therefore causing pain and insult to families whose babies were victims of such medical attitude, and in one case with fatal outcome.

Meaningful reform of the health system rests primarily on building a framework that promotes the responsibility and professional work of doctors and medical staff as the basis on which all other aspects of system efficiency and functionality are being developed and improved. In the «case of babies of Bijelo Polje» responsibility as a pillar principle of the system has been violated at all levels, and thus, all further efforts to put the safety and rights of patients at the first place were rendered meaningless. Therefore, the CCE calls on Minister Hrapovic to show special sensitivity and responsibility through efforts that will make sure that such doctors never again find themselves in a position to decide on anyone’s life or to resign himself if he holds any party (own or coalition) interests before the patient’s health.

Unfortunately, this case is not the only one that has led to the fatal consequences of a medical error that was not adequately sanctioned, which only perpetuates the cycle of irresponsability in a system where it should be a key element of functioning. However, we should also recall the admirable perseverance shown by fathers of Bijelo Polje to bring this case to the court, which even at that stage indicated that someone’s party interest was stronger than anything that these families had gone through.

In addition to all the shortcomings of the health system, which fail to cover numerous cosmetic and often meaningless reforms, there are still many dedicated and people of quality working in health institutions. Due to reluctance of the relevant institutions to provide an effective system of responsibility, rewarding and promoting of professionalism and achievement, many who deserve it never come to the forefront or in a position to manage the institutions of the system in order to contribute through a high-quality health system to establishing a healthier society, not only in the physical but in ethical terms as well. The position towards this case and convicted doctors will also be an indicator of what this government puts into focus – party interests and party fighters in their white coats or citizens, their children and health.

Petar Đukanović, Programme coordinator