THE CRITICAL role of regulating doctors to safeguard the health of the Jamaican public falls to the Medical Council of Jamaica at a time when there is growing interest in the standards, conduct and competence of doctors.
The 15-member council derives its authority to set standards of clinical competence and ethical conduct from the Medical Council Act, and the members are committed to working diligently to create an environment that encourages good medical practice across the entire spectrum of health-care facilities throughout Jamaica.
"The art of medicine involves applying technical skills in an ethical and responsible manner," asserts current chairman of the council, Dr John Hall, consultant neurologist and once-familiar figure in the corridors of the Kingston Public Hospital, where he founded the Neurology Clinic.
Citing the breadth of knowledge and wealth of experience that reside in the council, Hall said even though the act imposes a formidable challenge, the diversity of talent, ranging from medicine through to law and accounting, guarantees the delivery of top-notch ideas and wisdom.
Hall said the business of the council is carried out through committees and working groups as members set about developing strategic objectives for the body in an efficient and transparent manner.
Keeping public informed
On the matter of transparency, the council is happy to report the ongoing upgrading of its website to inform the public about what kind of service to expect from a doctor, as well as to make information about its work more readily available to practitioners and members of the public. The website aims to provide patients with useful information, which they may need to become partners with their doctors in deciding on their best health-care options.
Updating the medical register and publishing the names of registered practitioners in the Jamaica Gazette is one of the ways in which the council will help the general public to distinguish between qualified and unqualified practitioners.
"Patients trust their doctors with their health and their lives, so it is important that the council places utmost emphasis on patient care," said Hall.
Currently, there are 3,200 doctors on the register, and Hall decries the tardiness of some members of the profession in complying with the registration deadline. A practising certificate is a legal requirement for doctors and is renewable annually.
All medical practitioners in private practice are required to display a practising certificate on the walls at their office to confirm that they are duly registered to practise in the island.
Recognising that doctors are busy professionals, support and guidance in the registration process is conveniently provided by the secretariat of the council.
Professor Howard Spencer, who is registrar of the council, explained the registration process for medical doctors. "The categories are full, provisional, provisional locum, and special registration, and these are granted to applicants who satisfy specific requirements."
Spencer added: "Keeping our register of qualified practitioners current is important in our efforts to assure the public that our aim is to deliver the best care to our patients."
A key requirement for licensing medical professionals is continuing medical education (CME). The Medical Council has incorporated CME into its renewal process. And there is good reason for this.
"Maintaining professional competence is important because members of the public want to be confident that we are practising up-to-date medicine," said Hall. He added that the pace and nature of advances in medical knowledge compels every practitioner to keep abreast by continually upgrading one's skills to remain at the cutting edge of one's practice.
For many members of the public, ethical considerations are foremost when they think about medicine and its practice. The medical council has also placed ethical guidance at the core of its agenda.
There is an established complaints mechanism that includes a commitment to acknowledge complaints made against members of the profession within 24 hours. Complaints may be made in writing directly to the council or via its website.
Hall assured members of the public that the council takes seriously its responsibility to investigate allegations of professional misconduct, and pledges to do so in a timely manner. Repeatedly, members of the public have expressed the false notion that the council exists to protect the interest of medical professionals to the detriment of the public.
Far from condoning unethical behaviour and concerned with protecting its own, the council, which accords patient safety the highest priority, will take swift disciplinary action against any member who after due process has been found guilty of professional misconduct. The council has the power to strike off any errant practitioner in order to protect the health of the public.
The medical council also has a part to play in helping to drive the standards set for training of undergraduate and postgraduate medical students. By supporting medical educators, policymakers, researchers and doctors, the council aims to influence the quality of training programmes to achieve the ultimate goal of improvement in patient care and safety.
Dr Hall sees the establishment of a more comprehensive engagement with the medical profession and the public as a major component of the council's mission going forward. He said this is necessary in order to meet the goals of a safe and healthy society.